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Enrollment Decline Puts Plans for New Rochester High School on Hold

Schools statewide have lost thousands of students and the funding that goes with them during the Covid-closures in most districts. My colleague Catrin Wigfall explained what’s behind the dramatic decline in enrollment in K-12 public schools in this post yesterday.

School closures among many public schools to start the 2020 school year and parent frustration over a distance learning model caused a good number of families to look into alternative learning environments that could meet their children’s needs. The Center also heard from numerous public school parents who were concerned about the lesson content and political ideology they were seeing in their children’s education, causing them to pursue other learning options.

One of the most dramatic shifts in student enrollment occurred in Rochester, where parents have been particularly outspoken about their dissatisfaction with the district’s reliance on distance learning over a quicker return to the classroom. The Rochester Post Bulletin reports the loss of students has been so dramatic that plans to move ahead with a new high school have been shelved for now.

Although Rochester seemed to be on pace to have enough students to justify a fourth high school in the coming years, that projection was scaled back after a decrease in enrollment associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Enrollment for Rochester Public Schools in 2020 decreased by more than 660 students when compared to the year before. The school district had been anticipating an increase, meaning the school district’s projections for the current school year were off by more than 800 students.

“We had been projecting growth, growth, growth, year after year,” RPS Finance Director John Carlson told the school board.

Nearly half of the 660 students leaving the district moved away. But private schools and homeschool each gained about 13 percent of student defectors, while 6 percent took advantage of open enrollment to attend school in other districts in the area.

As a result of the dent in enrollment, the magic number of 6,000 high schoolers needed to consider a fourth high school no longer appears viable.

The actual projections for high school enrollment, which take the pandemic into account, show more conservative numbers. According to that data, the high school enrollment in 2025-26 is expected to be at 5,732. Additionally, high school enrollment is not expected to surpass the 6,000 mark at all according to the projections, which extend to 2030-31.

Carlson said the “logical point” to begin having a conversation about creating a fourth high school is once the high school enrollment exceeds 6,000 students.

“This year, we are not formally predicting breaking the 6,000 number in our projections because we have reduced our numbers in elementary and middle school based on the numbers of un-enrollments we had in the fall of 2020,” Carlson told the Post Bulletin in an email.

Educators like to talk about empowering students. But in this case the policies of the Rochester district clearly empowered parents with long-lasting results that should not be lost on other districts across the state of Minnesota.

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