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Rochester Public Schools projects enrollment to fall over the next decade

"I would say we need to have Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, so that we can respond to all of these possibilities in a really clear, important way," Superintendent Kent Pekel said.

Rochester School Board stock photo 1
Rochester Public Schools Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel looks on during a School Board meeting Tuesday, July 13, 2021, at the school district's Edison Administration Building in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
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ROCHESTER — Rochester Public Schools is gearing up for the possibility of its enrollment dropping over the next 10 years.

The School Board discussed the issue Tuesday, May 17, 2022, while delving into a report on the matter from the firm Cooperative Strategies, which the district contracted with on the matter.

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Cooperative Strategies developed four possible scenarios for the district's enrollment over the next decade: low, moderate, recommended, and high. Three of those scenarios show enrollment dropping from its current number of 17,800 students.

The district had been recording steady growth until the pandemic. It then lost more than 600 students in the fall of 2020.

"Prior to the pandemic, we were on this trend: 100, 200 kids — up up up every year. There wasn't any end in sight," said RPS Finance Director John Carlson.

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Enrollment is vastly important information to the district. It affects everything from the number of staff members the district can hire to the amount of state aid available. Most funding streams are calculated on a per student basis. Part of the reason for the school district's current budget crises is because of the large drop of students in 2020.

RPS had reached an enrollment high the year before the pandemic, recording 18,296 students during the 2019-20 school year.

In the "recommended" projection, RPS' enrollment would drop to 15,698 students by the year 2031-32. Under the low projection, enrollment would drop to 13,503. Under the moderate projection, enrollment would drop to 16,177.

The high projection is the only scenario that increases enrollment, coming to 19,433.

The report from Cooperative Strategies described how each projection was created:

"The moderate enrollment projections are based on a selected average or weighted average of survival ratios (in this case, a 5-year simple average, by school). The low and high enrollment projections are developed using statistical distributional theory, providing the District with a more conservative (low) and more liberal (high) enrollment projection. The recommended enrollment projection is based on a detailed analysis of historical enrollment and resulting survival ratios over the past 10 years, by school."

Superintendent Kent Pekel said it's important to be cautious of putting too much faith in projections influenced by the pandemic.

He went on to point out that there was an increase in enrollment from 2020-21 to 2021-22, indicating that the district's prospects may not be as bad as they seem.

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"The cohort-based methodology that is the state of the art is highly problematic when it incorporates the reactions to a global pandemic," Pekel said. "We're up a bit this year. And that's encouraging. That is a very recent hard data point."


What happened: Rochester Public Schools held a study session to look at the projected enrollment over the next 10 years and discuss how that will affect the district's budget.

Why does this matter: Enrollment influences a lot in the school district, from the number of staff members it can hire to the amount of state aid it will receive.

What's next: The school district will prepare different plans to respond to the various enrollment projections presented.


One of the remaining questions is whether the district will be able to regain some of the students it lost during the pandemic. Carlson said there's really no way to plan for whether or not that will happen.

In spite of the difficulty associated with winning families back, Pekel said it is important to try to build the district's enrollment numbers back up while preparing for the possibility that the projected decline could materialize.

"I would say we need to have plan A, plan B and plan C so that we can respond to all of these possibilities in a really clear, important way," Pekel said. "And we need to be very aggressive about addressing the challenges we have in our system and then building on our strengths so that we are the provider of choice."

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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