Student enrollment numbers down in Hoquiam, Aberdeen

Student enrollment in the Aberdeen and Hoquiam school districts is down, which translates into a potentially costly drop in funding for both districts.

“Right now we’re looking at being down 50-65 kids compared to last year,” said Hoquiam Superintendent Mike Villarreal. “Right now our Homelink program (an online-only alternative the district has offered for several years) has grown, which is a good thing, we picked up a few students there, but overall we’re down a little bit.”

Villarreal said in terms of state funding, which is based on enrollment, Hoquiam is looking at a hit of $500,000 or more, up to $700,000, based on about $10,000-$12,000 per student.

In an update released Monday, Aberdeen Superintendent Alicia Henderson said that based on the first “count day” of the year, last Tuesday the district has 158 students fewer than projected. That is the first count day for the school year and gets incorporated with future counts to determine how much the district gets from the state budget, by far the largest source of funding for local schools.

Each FTE generates $12,802 in state apportionment, so the reduction of 158 FTEs equates to $2,022,716, Henderson said.

“There is a difference between a headcount and full-time enrollment (FTE),” said Henderson. “What that means is if we have a student who comes to the high school for half a day but goes to Running Start for half a day, that kid counts as one in the head count but .5 FTE. That is a really key thing, our FTE, which is our funding apportionment.”

The numbers supplied by Henderson Friday show a headcount of 3,010, but an FTE total of 2,955.74.

By comparison the Aberdeen School District at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year had enrollment of 3,537 across all grade levels, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction district report card. Over the past few years, enrollment was 3,395 at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, rising to 3,602 in the 2017-18 school year.

In Hoquiam, there were 1,682 students enrolled at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, according to the Superintendent of Public Instruction report card. Enrollment was 1,681 at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, rose to 1,730 the following year, dropped to 1,617 in the 2016-17 school year, then rose and held steady the next two school years, 1,716 and 1,720.

Funding apportionment is based on an annual average of full time enrolled students.

“This is our first data point for the year and we are anticipating there will be changes throughout the year and we can’t say what those will be,” said Henderson. “There is a rhythm to enrollment and there are trends for the school year that are replicable across school years, but this year it’s the wild west, we don’t know what to expect, but we have to be prepared for changes up or down.”

Both school districts have made staffing cuts and adjustments based on the new model of online learning as the pandemic stretches on, and both have their employee agreements in place for the current school year. The fallout from lower-than-projected enrollment and related funding could potentially lead to even more difficult financial decisions for the districts into the next school year.

Villarreal said he’s hoping more students will trickle in as families adjust to the new way of learning.

“I’m hoping as school gets started and we get beyond these first few weeks, the families out there who are still trying to decide what they are doing will come back,” said Villarreal.

Both districts have been aggressive with their outreach, trying to give every family in their respective districts the information and tools they need to get the full benefit of online learning.

“We anticipated the need this year to do a lot of outreach to our families,” said Henderson. “Each of our schools has a Connections Team, a group of staff dedicated to reaching out to students and families with everything from tech to internet, being able to manage their software and also making connections with the families and community partners for resources.”

Access to internet is critical in online learning, and like a lot of rural districts those within Grays Harbor County are working to ensure each student has access to their online classes.

“We were able to identify about 50 families that either have really bad internet connectivity, or maybe no internet at all,” said Villarreal. “We’re working with them, making sure they have the right connectivity for the devices to work for them. It’s going to be a bit of a project in order to get everybody fully functioning, and recognize that if it doesn’t work it’s going to be hard for students.”