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.
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Of those 660-plus students who left the district, 46% moved out of the area, 13% switched to a private school, 13% switched to homeschooling, and 6% open-enrolled into other nearby school districts such as Stewartville and Pine Island.
RPS is anticipating a modest rebound. The district has estimated enrollment for 2021-22 will be 17,743 students, an increase of 108 from the fall of 2020. Enrollment is projected to climb above the 18,000 mark in October 2023. Based on the 10-year projection, however, overall enrollment could fall back to 17,665 by 2030-31, which would be a mere 30 students more than the number recorded in the fall of 2020.
Even though the 2020 enrollment number was particularly low on Oct. 1, Carlson said the district did have increases on Nov. 1, Dec. 1 and Jan. 1, indicating some of the students who left may have returned shortly thereafter.
Nonetheless, such a large overall drop in enrollment might have changed some of the district's long-term planning. Carlson said he expects that roughly 25% of the students who left during the pandemic will return.
While acknowledging the decrease in students, Carlson went on to say that projections still foretell growth. He said overall enrollment for the three high schools could reach 6,000 students soon.
"We're going to possibly cross over that 6,000 marker in October of '25," Carlson told the school board on Tuesday. "A referendum for building a fourth high school might be in the cards somewhere out there if we continue to see upward trends in our high school numbers."
However, Carlson clarified on Wednesday that there was an error in the graph used during the presentation. Essentially, the possibility that Rochester could reach the 6,000 high school student mark by 2025 was based on pre-pandemic enrollment projections.
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.
The school board on Tuesday also discussed the ongoing process of updating school boundaries. The district is redrawing boundaries to account for addition of a new elementary school and a new middle school, both of which are in the northwest quadrant of the city.
On Tuesday, they announced the makeup of a committee helping to lead the process. Although the school district hasn't released the names of those serving on the committee, it includes six community members who do not have children in the district, six RPS staff members, 11 parents, one Realtor, one city planner and two high school students. Carlson said the committee is trying to add a third student so as to have one from each of the high schools.
The individuals selected for the committee were chosen by the firm RPS is consulting with, Cooperative Strategies, rather than the district itself. Carlson said the committee will present a recommendation to the school board in May as to what the new boundaries should be. The changes would take effect in the fall of 2022.
At a passing glance, the current district boundaries could contribute to the perception that Rochester is getting close to the 6,000 high school student mark. According to Carlson, Mayo High School had nearly 2,000 students enrolled for the fall of 2021 as of Feb. 15. With three public high schools, it would stand to reason that between them, the overall number of high school students is getting close to that 6,000 mark.
However, the enrollment numbers for 2021 at the other two high schools are not as high. John Marshall has 1,638 students signed up so far for 2021. Century High School only has 1,568, more than 400 less than that of Mayo.
School Board Chair Jean Marvin asked Carlson if the boundary changes would affect the high schools as well, or only the elementary and middle schools.
"It is not the intent to change the high school boundaries," Carlson said, while clarifying that the committee has noticed the numbers aren't equally distributed between the three schools. "We're getting a little bit lop-sided as the boundaries sit today."