St. Cloud Public School Enrollment Dips as Parents Seek Alternatives

The statistics don’t lie. A sizable number of families in the St. Cloud School District have made the decision to remove their K-12 students from the public school system this fall. The St. Cloud Times tallied up the marked decline in enrollment at the start of the school year.

St. Cloud school district has about 4% fewer students in district classrooms this fall compared to last year.

That’s a decrease of about 375 students — for a total of about 9,250 students — in kindergarten through 12th grade and at the district’s alternative sites.

“A big portion of what we’re seeing this year … is significantly COVID-related,” said Amy Skaalerud, executive director of finance and business services, at Wednesday’s school board meeting.

The dramatic reshuffling of student enrollment relates to COVID alright. The public system hemmed and hawed on a reopening plan into August, essentially leaving parents in the lurch. But the local Catholic school system announced a clear-cut goal of returning to in-person learning with a distance learning option under state-COVID guidelines. The parochial system’s president Scott Warzecha told the paper earlier that all eight elementary and high school would be open for learning.

Warzecha said Cathedral High School will be able to have all students attend school in person five days a week and still meet the requirements.

“Just by virtue of our smaller class sizes by design, we’re able to do that hybrid social distancing and still be within our facilities,” he said. “We’re able to accommodate that either in classrooms or by moving larger classrooms into communal spaces.”

The across-the-board decline at all grade levels exceeded the district’s projections. In fact, more than 30 additional students have also made the switch since the start of the new academic year.

The district anticipated a drop of at least 125 students due to enrollment changes during the last school year, including a number of expulsions and not as many students enrolling in the spring due to the pandemic.

Two weeks before school started, the district’s kindergarten enrollment was down about 60 students, likely due to families holding back their child a year or choosing to home school. As of Sept. 28, the district was down about 40 kindergartners.

Kennedy Community School in St. Joseph, which serves grades K-8, had the largest decrease in enrollment — a decline of about 130 students, or more than 15% since last year.

Parents have no obligation to state why they chose to change school systems. But homeschooling and face-to-face learning clearly account for many defections.

While families don’t always report to the district why they are leaving, some families expressed interest in enrolling where they can get full in-person elementary at private schools or other public schools, Skaalerud said.

Sixty-six students also registered for home school that did not home school last year; and some students enrolled in other online school options.

Is the scenario in St. Cloud a local phenomenon? Or is it the start of a trend already playing out in other school districts across the state as parents of necessity become more hands-on in their children’s learning?