After lags during the COVID-19 pandemic, many school districts in the Flathead Valley reported slight increases in enrollment numbers for the 2022-23 school year, reflecting both population growth in the area and an enthusiastic return to in-person learning.
The Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) on Dec. 1 released the state’s preliminary fall student enrollment numbers, which marked the highest school enrollment in Montana in two decades. Currently, 166,251 students attend public, private and home schools in Montana. 149,879 of those students attend the state’s public schools, the highest public school enrollment in 19 years.
Between the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, public elementary school districts in Bigfork, Cayuse Prairie, Columbia Falls, Creston, Deer Park, Helena Flats, Kila, Marion, Olney/Bissell, Smith Valley, Swan River, West Glacier and Whitefish saw enrollment increases, the most dramatic of which being an 18% increase of 30 students in Deer Park and a 33% increase of 19 students in West Glacier, two of the county’s most rural districts. The Evergreen, Fair-Mont-Egan, Kalispell, Somers and West Valley elementary school districts saw reduced enrollment, though none saw more than a 10% decrease.
At the high school level, the Bigfork, Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Whitefish districts saw enrollment increases of 2% to 3%.
Flathead County Superintendent of Schools Jack Eggensperger pointed to the influx of new residents in the Flathead Valley as a likely cause for the enrollment uptick. Between 2020 and 2021, Flathead County gained 3,881 residents from in-migration, helping Kalispell take the title of the fastest growing urban area in Montana. However, Eggensperger noted that the net gains in the county were relatively slim, with an overall increase of 41 students in public elementary schools and 104 students in public high schools across the county.
Following a return to in-person learning and a loosening of COVID-19 restrictions, homeschooling in Flathead County decreased by 6% at the elementary school level and 13% at the high school level. On a statewide level, however, homeschooling increased by 4.7%. Eggensperger said he believes parents were enthusiastic to get their children back in the classroom after homeschooling during the pandemic.
In a Dec. 1 press release, OPI Superintendent Elsie Arntzen highlighted the importance of strengthening educational standards as the state sees an increase in enrollment.
“The focus of education is parallel to the increase in enrollment of our public, private, and homeschool enrollment,” Arntzen said. “The emphasis on the basics of math and reading and seeking innovative education solutions are needed now more than ever. Revising our state math and reading content standards, creating math innovation zones, reimagining student testing with the MAST pilot program, and offering more professional development for teachers in math and reading will ensure that our Montana students achieve educational excellence.”