Enrollment at Missoula schools increases for first time in 7 years

By JAMIE KELLY of the Missoulian | Posted: Monday, October 10, 2011 6:30 am

If the boom is loud enough, the echoes will be numerous.

And so the post-war burst of babies that started 66 years ago has now reverberated twice, and has led to the first rise in Missoula County Public Schools enrollment in seven years.

In what demographer Larry Swanson calls the "echo-echo" of the baby boom, a surge of births starting in 2006 has swollen a population of youngsters who are now entering kindergarten.

"This most recent bump is the kids of the kids of the boomers," said Swanson, who works for the University of Montana's O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West.

For the last seven years, Swanson has studied statewide and Missoula County demographics for, among other institutions, MCPS.

MCPS this year saw a big increase in kindergarten enrollment. The 660 kids it took in is about 120 more than its 10-year average.


Well, like many other statistical trends over the last 66 years, the increase can be traced back to the baby boomers - the generation born in the 20 years after World War II.

Here's what has happened, said Swanson.

The boomers had children, who, over a 20-year period, are collectively known as Generation X, a label assigned to them by novelist Douglas Coupland.

Gen-Xers and some in Generation Y were born between 1964 and 1988, but the birth rate swelled to a peak in 1982.

The new generation then started having their own children, as the baby boomers became grandparents.

In Montana, the "echo-echo" seems to have peaked in 2006, with 12,500 births. In Missoula County, 2007 was the peak year with 1,369 babies.

Most of those kids have now entered kindergarten.

So it was no surprise to Swanson that school enrollment is up this year.

In fact, it was Swanson's statistical model that told MCPS to get ready for a big batch of kids. And so the district hired four new teachers.

Now, the soon-to-be-official enrollment count is out in Missoula's largest school district. After seven straight years of declining enrollment, MCPS this year has around 170 kids more than the prior year.

There are 8,555 students in school this year, compared to 8,381 last year.

MCPS business director Pat McHugh said it was Swanson's statistical model that allowed the district to prepare for the increase in kindergarten enrollment.

"So far, we're pretty dead-on in terms of the demographic study, so we were basically expecting a bump," he said.

Increasing enrollment is not something MCPS has had to deal with since 2004, when enrollment peaked at more than 9,000 students. Since then, enrollment has steadily trended south for a variety of factors - rising home prices in Missoula, which squeezes out young families, among them.

The enrollment surge is a good thing, said McHugh, but it does present its own set of challenges to a district that has been losing students year after year.

For one thing, MCPS' budget is already capped to the maximum allowed by state law. So when there are extra costs, the district must make cuts, as it has been doing for years, he said. Also, state money for education is always pegged to enrollment figures from the previous year, so this year's increase won't mean more money until the summer of 2012.

"A great portion of that funding comes from the state," said McHugh. "It means that with the tie to enrollment, our budgets may not be flat, and they've been flat for years."

This year's kindergarten boom may be short-lived, however.

After peaking in 2007 in Missoula County, the birth rate has fallen off considerably and bottomed out to around 1,200 births in 2010.

Swanson offers one explanation for that: recession.

"This unexpected recent decline may in part be attributed to the current economic slump and poor job outlook for many young adults," Swanson theorizes. "Having children, at least for some, may be being put off for a few years."

An economic turnabout, which has been frustratingly slow to come, could create another bump in babies, and another rise in MCPS enrollment.

Five years down the line, that is.

Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.