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EDUCATION: School enrollment remains steady, district nears 5,000 mark for students

BEMIDJI--Attendance at Bemidji Area Schools is similar to last year but still trending upward, according to figures provided by school district staff.

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BEMIDJI-Attendance at Bemidji Area Schools is similar to last year but still trending upward, according to figures provided by school district staff.

Superintendent Jim Hess reported that 4,993 students were enrolled in the school district's "mainline" programs as of Thursday, meaning that students in early intervention centers and other specialized programs had yet to be tallied.

That number is preliminary, Hess and other district staff stressed. School districts record formal attendance numbers-which are later used to determine state funding-on Oct. 1, once the student population has settled.

"It does fluctuate fairly dramatically during the first few weeks of school," Hess said of the district's student population numbers.

As the school year continues, the district tends to lose high school-aged students who head into the workforce once they turn 17 and state law no longer requires them to attend classes. The district tends to gain elementary-aged students, according to Chris Leinen, director of business services.

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"We might see growth at the lower grades depending on the underlying economy of the city," Leinen said. "If people are coming here for jobs, those kids will enroll."

The district also has a "mobility rate" of about 20 percent, Leinen said. That means about 1,000 students each year will move to a different school or a different district entirely.
"That's a lot of shifting that takes place throughout the course of the year," Leinen said.

Hess characterized this year's attendance number-albeit a non-official one-as "pretty close" to last year's numbers.

Year-to-year changes are incremental, but documents supplied by the district indicate its student population has steadily increased since 2007 and is projected to continue upward through the 2020-21 school year. School districts use a variety of metrics to measure attendance rates and project future ones, but they are generally based on birth rates and current and historic enrollment numbers.

Educators and school districts across the state have been grappling with increasingly large student populations, which often means opening new schools or re-opening ones that were shuttered during a large scale economic recession in 2008.

Hess said the district's push to open a new school for fourth- and fifth-graders is a result of the school district's burgeoning population.

"We have seen the need," he said. "The elementary enrollment is increasing dramatically."

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