School enrollment shows decline; COVID-19, other factors to blame

The number of students enrolled in Wrangell Public Schools has dropped by nearly half in the past 30 years.

According to data from the Alaska Department of Education, enrollment for the 1991-92 school year totaled 527. The 2021-22 school year enrollment totaled 257 in the fall count.

So where have the children gone?

“I came in ’94 and the mill was still running,” said Bob Davis, assistant principal for Wrangell High School and Stikine Middle School. “The mill went down about a year later and things have been rough ever since. When COVID hit, things really dropped, and we haven’t recovered entirely.”

The 2020 U.S. Census data shows there are 420 school-age children (5 to 18 years old) residing in Wrangell. “We still have around 50 students that are still enrolled in different or homeschool programs outside of the Wrangell Public Schools District, that at one time attended our schools,” said Schools Superintendent Bill Burr.

Deducting those 50 from the school-age population of 420, leaves about 113 kids not enrolled in Wrangell schools. Of course, Davis said, there are some in the census age range that have graduated and some have dropped out, but there are some that just aren’t being counted.

“I’m also concerned because a lot of kids have dropped off the radar,” Davis said. “And they’re not, I think, in homeschool situations. They’re just not going to school.”

As for homeschooled students, Davis feels that many parents taking on the task of teaching at home “do a fantastic job of that, and I support that 100%.”

Census data showed that Wrangell’s median age is 49. A 2014 Alaska Department of Labor Economic Trends Report showed that the borough’s median age was much higher than that of Alaska’s median age of 34. “Older populations have lower birth rates and more deaths, and Wrangell also tends to lose population through more people moving out than in, which is common for smaller Alaska communities,” the report read.

A Labor Department report from 2019 stated, “Alaska’s negative net migration trend has also contributed to this shift to an older population. Since 2013, Alaska has lost substantially more people to migration each year than it’s gained, leading to little or no total population growth.”

Wrangell’s school-age children comprise about 19% of the community’s population, which is on par with the rest of the state.

Declining school enrollment isn’t just a concern to the amount of state funding the district receives, it affects the opportunities the district can provide to the kids that are attending school.

The lower student count in recent years has cost the district a few hundred thousand dollars in state funding each year. State funding covers about 65% of the district’s general fund budget.

“For almost my whole career here, we’ve been losing students to a large degree,” Davis said. “What that means is we have to eventually reduce staff. But what we try to do when we reduce staff is we don’t reduce programs and opportunities for kids. Teachers are doing more with less. It’s getting to the point, in my opinion, that that can’t continue. Teachers are working their tails off.”

He went on to say staff can do a lot, but doing those things well is difficult when teachers have too much on their plates. “So, if you had more people, you could focus and offer more programs and they’d be more in-depth. It takes more money, it takes more staff.”

Burr said there was a drop-off in enrollment after COVID-19 hit the community in 2020. “Last year was around 200 (students) and the current year, we budgeted on having 225 students.” The actual count surpassed that number, bringing some relief to the school district budget.

Enrolled students are tallied during the district’s count period, which is late September through late October, Burr said. “This is then run through the state of Alaska’s foundation formula, which considers a number of factors that are factored into the district average daily membership, then multiplied by the base student allocation,” he said. The base student allocation equals $5,930 per student, with additions for high-cost areas, special-needs students and other factors.

“Those that aren’t in school hurts (state) funding and opportunities, but more than that, for those kids who aren’t getting a good education, that we don’t have eyes on, part of it I’m worried about some of those kids’ physical safety,” Davis said. “All the data shows abuse and neglect skyrocketing.”

Though there aren’t any ready solutions other than getting more kids enrolled, Davis believes hard decisions must be made.

“It’s time to take a look at the whole system and say what elements are we going to be exceptional at and what elements are we going to have to give up,” he said. “I don’t know what those elements should be, but we continue to come up with these great ideas and keep saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ but we’ve never cut, cut, cut.”


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