By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
This August began like any other at Highland Park Early Primary School - teachers began setting up their classrooms for about 120 children who were registered to enter one of six kindergarten classes.
But between Aug. 4 and when school opened a little more than three weeks later, parents kept calling to register their children to start school.
"Those last two weeks that I was here, we kept enrolling new kindergartners until we were up to 138," said Highland Park principal Sharon Bonderud. That was up 22 students from the number of kindergartners last September, according to a 2002-2003 enrollment report for Havre Public Schools.
With state accreditation standards calling for 20 students per class in kindergarten, Bonderud decided she would have to open another class.
That meant some last-minute rearranging had to be done. A classroom that had been used for first grade last year, and was planned to be used as a music classroom, was changed back into a classroom. The school's music teacher went back to being itinerant, traveling from one classroom to another like she has done in the past. The schedules for physical education, music, library, and computer lab schedules had to be changed to make room for another class.
Then, of course, a new teacher had to be found.
Heather Bricker, 26, said she had figured she would be spending the year with her daughter at home, when she got a call offering her a job to teach kindergarten. Bricker, a third-grade teacher from Denver, had interviewed for a teaching position in May and was the district's next pick for a job.
So with just a day before the kids came back to school, Bricker set to work setting up her classroom. Most of the teachers had been working on their rooms for weeks, Bonderud said.
"She's our saving grace," Bonderud said. "... Heather was very courageous to take that on."
The other teachers helped her set up bulletin boards and shared supplies and instructional materials. When the new class of 18 students came in on the first day of school, everything was ready.
Kindergarten teacher Suzy Capdeville has taught at Highland Park since the all the kindergarten classes moved there in the fall of 2001. She said that since then enrollment has been pretty steady, with 17 to 20 students to fill six classes of kindergartners - two for each of three kindergarten teachers. "So this year it's been pretty exciting, and we teachers were really glad when we hired an extra teacher," Capdeville said.
The last-minute influx of students may have necessitated some last minute scrambling, but Bonderud isn't complaining.
"Oh, it's a very positive thing for our school and our community," she said. "When you look at the number of districts in Montana who's enrollment is declining ... this is a wonderful problem to have. It's a challenge, but it's a positive challenge." She added that the more students the school can get, the more state revenue it can receive in the following year.
The new kindergarten students come from a variety of sources.
"Some of the calls we had were from new employees from Bi-Mart," Bonderud said, adding that the school had also received calls from new employees from the U.S. Border Patrol. The rest, she said, were transfers from private schools in town or from surrounding school districts.
Have Public Schools superintendent Kirk Miller said he doesn't know where the last-minute influx of kids came from.
"We haven't compiled all that information at this point, but certainly we're pleased that we had a higher number than we anticipated," he said. In addition to Bi-Mart and the Border Patrol, some of the students may be coming from parents who are attending MSU-Northern, he said.
Last year Havre saw an enrollment decrease of about 83 students in grades K-8 and an increase of about 13 students in the high school.
According to a preliminary enrollment report that the district does every year on the Monday after Labor Day, enrollment in grades K-8 stands at 1,313 students - up 20 from last year - while the high school is down 22 students from last year at 682 students. The total number of students in K-12 is 1,995, a loss of two students.
School district officials cautioned that the numbers are still preliminary. Official counts will be taken on Oct. 6 and Feb. 3 and averaged to calculate the total enrollment this year.
Still, officials are cautiously optimistic, and the kindergarten class is part of the reason.
"Initially it appears for the first time in a long time we have held our own in terms of overall enrollment," district clerk Ric Floren told the Havre School Board last week as he presented the preliminary report. He told the board that in each of the last few years the district has seen enrollment drops of between 50 and 75 students.
Floren said the kindergartners only bring in half the amount of state dollars that students who attend school for a whole day do.
"If everyone sticks around, we're going to have 138 (students) for the next 12 years," he said. That is a big if, because Florn said the number of students in a grade often drops slightly from September to May.
This fall's trend will need to continue if the district is to avoid declining enrollment - and state funds - in the future.
Floren said that when last year's closing enrollment is compared to this fall's beginning enrollment there are, across the board, fewer students entering the lower grades of each school than students who graduated last year.
With an average grade size of 170 in the high school, 160 in the middle school, and between 125 and 150 students in grades K-5, Floren said, in a few years the high school class size could be closer to 140.
The high school grades also receive students from other local schools like St. Jude Thaddeus School, Floren added, and that could help soften the effects of the smaller, younger HPS grades.
Floren said this year's kindergarten class of 138 students is encouraging.
"That is a wonderful number," Floren said. "Hopefully this is the change that will at least start our numbers to level off."