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Bemidji school district experiences increased student enrollment

The Bemidji School District has noted a growth trend at the early grade levels. The bump in ninth grade is from the addition of St. Philip's students. The data above was generated by Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services. Pioneer Graphic

When it comes to school enrollment, numbers are important.

When fall enrollment numbers arrive on Oct. 1, the Bemidji Area Schools District pays close attention. Student enrollment drives about $35 million to $37 million for the district.

Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services, reported an increase of 85 students from last year. Most of the increase is seen in the elementary classes.

"We see the enrollment increasing to 5,337 in five years. This will almost gain back the loss we've seen over the course of a 25-year window," said Leinen.

Leinen also noted the attrition in student enrollment in grades 10-12.

"Relatively speaking, we lose 3 percent of students over a course of time," said Leinen. "This is a significant number when you think about how many students we have in the district."

Despite lower enrollment numbers at the upper grade levels, ninth grade appears to have consistently higher enrollment.

Leinen attributes this growth to students enrolling at Bemidji High School from St. Philip's school, which usually totals around 30 students.

District officials look at the actual numbers of births from Beltrami County to figure out kindergarten enrollment projection.

"(In 2002) there were 599 births in Beltrami County, which resulted in 387 kindergarteners this year," said Leinen. "These are children who have already been born, so we know we are going to see growth. A certain percentage of those students are going to come to Bemidji."

While the expected growth is good news for the district, it's not without difficulties, he said. State aid is higher on a per-pupil basis at the high school level than it is at the elementary school level. Over time, however, the increase will result in more money, said Leinen.

"We will be challenged with space issues certainly within next five years to a certain degree," he said. "You see it coming; it's time to start preparing for it now."

Reasons as to why the district is seeing more enrollment in kindergarten-aged students has to do with economics and birth rates.

"There's not just one reason. Some possibilities might be folks moving back to Bemidji area, higher birth rates, or possibly the effects of the Enbridge pipeline. We don't really inquire too deeply as to what the motivation is," said Leinen.

The district will need to review recommendations and think in terms of kindergarten counts.

"We will have to start looking at possible expansions of our elementary schools. The kids are real and they are here. We need to make accommodations for them," said Superintendent Jim Hess.

Hess said the history of the school district's enrollment has seen a series of fluctuations over the past several decades. In 2001, Minnesota statutes were passed to allow charter schools to be created.

"We were seeing steady increases in enrollment followed by a leveling off period," said Hess. "When the three charter schools were started in Bemidji a decade ago, District 31 staff began to see students leaving the district. After that, our enrollment dropped dramatically. Then, it eventually leveled off, and now it's going back up again."