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Choices, Economics Play Part in Student Enrollment at County Districts

BY MELANIE WADE –

With the consolidation of schools several years ago and the School Choice Act of 2013, school districts across the state have seen their enrollment numbers fluctuate. Sometimes up, sometimes down, sometimes stable, it’s hard to guess how many students a district may have in any given year.

More choices for education have caused some district numbers to decline, while others have soared. From choosing your preferred school no matter what district you live in, to the internet making homeschool materials much more accessible, many districts are finding creative ways to keep their student populations on the rise. For Polk County’s three districts, Mena, Cossatot River, and Ouachita River, they have all seen and felt the blessings and the woes of the fluctuations.

Over the past decade, all three districts’ enrollment numbers have had ebbs and flows. The chart to the right displays those numbers with information attained from the Arkansas Department of Education.

The Pulse reached out to each of the districts and asked what each felt was the largest factor in the success or decline of the district’s student population. For Cossatot River (whose trend numbers only go back seven years due to their consolidation), in the 2010-2011 school year, they had 1,143 students. In the 2016-2017 school year, their population was 1,022 students (15 of which are ‘school choice’ students), creating a difference of 121 students. Cossatot River Superintendent Donnie Davis said his opinion of why the numbers dropped is “derived from talking to school community people” and that “the local economy has caused families to move to areas where jobs are available or better paying jobs are available.” During the 2015-2016 school year (latest available data), there were 57 homeschool students within the Cossatot River district. Cossatot River’s district includes: Cossatot River High School, Umpire Schools, and Elementary campuses in Cove, Wickes, and Vandervoort.

In Mena, the trend is much the same. Mena’s district includes: Mena High School, Middle School, and Holly Harshman and Louise Durham Elementary Schools. Consolidation saw a large increase in students, only to see the numbers slowly decline. In the 2007-2008 school year, one decade ago, Mena School District had 1,983 students. This last year, the 2016-2017 school year, the number dropped to 1716 (with zero ‘school choice’ students), creating a difference of 267 students. During the 2015-2016 school year (latest available data), there were 146 homeschool students living within Mena’s district.

Superintendent of Mena Public Schools, Benny Weston, said, “I believe the biggest factor to our declining enrollment is lack of industry and economic strain.  The largest majority of the student population leaving our district are also leaving our county area.”

Ouachita River School District on the other hand, has seen a rise in their student population over the last several years. They include all Acorn and Oden Schools. Their Superintendent, Jerry Strasner, said he believes the small atmosphere is a draw for students and their families. “We have had a bunch of students ‘choiced’ over in the last four years. Parents say they come for a smaller environment.” Those ‘choiced’ students come from several surrounding districts including Waldron, Mena, and Cossatot River.

During the 2007-2008 school year, Ouachita River’s student population was 724 students. In 2016-2017, that number sat at 736 (51 of those being ‘school choice’ students). Although that increase seems to be small, they had dipped down to 674 in the 2013-2014 school year. After the School Choice Act of 2013, their numbers have had a steady increase. There were 44 homeschool students within their district’s borders in the 2015-2016 school year (latest data available).

No matter what the reason, each district does their best to provide a quality education and retain their students year to year. Whether it be implementing more activities and class selections or attempting to launch a virtual school (see Mena District Applies to State for Virtual School; Holds Public Meeting the July 12 edition of The Polk County Pulse or check out MyPulseNews.com), student retention is at the forefront of their minds.

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