Enrollment increases, breaking new records

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The bell rings; you begin to move to your next class of the day. But to your dismay, your path is blocked by a large group of students. You slice and dice your way through the hallway, but the group grows larger and larger, slowly pulling you in. With your final breath, you realize that you’ll never get to class on time.

As students return for the 2019-2020 school year, many may notice the larger classes and increase of students. This isn’t new; the Columbia Heights Public School District has been on a growing trend for a number of years. However, a large population influx (among other factors) has forced CHPS to make some tough decisions, specifically at Highland Elementary and Columbia Heights High School.

A recent class size study by the Metropolitan Educational Cooperative Service Unit compared CHPS to 27 other school districts in the metro area for a five-year period. CHPS exceeded the average student size in grades two to five, while also being considerably larger in middle school Physical Education and high school Family and Consumer Sciences. Meanwhile, in August it was found that Highland was 55 students over capacity, while at CHHS grades nine and ten had reached classroom capacity. Due to the large amounts of student enrollment, administration recommended the Columbia Heights School Board close open enrollment for the 2019-2020 school year in grades nine and ten at CHHS, kindergarten and grade one at North Park Elementary, and all levels at Highland Elementary.

Closing outside enrollment means that freshman and sophomore students outside of the school district cannot enroll at CHHS, but students who live in the area can continue to do so. As for elementary students, limited open enrollment is still available at North Park and Valley View Elementary.

I think closing to open enrollment is necessary once a building’s capacity has been met,” Columbia Academy Principal Mr. Duane Berkas said. “By closing to open enrollment, we are able to make sure we can continue to offer the opportunities we have committed to and to provide them with excellence.”

At the School Board meeting on August 27, the members voted 4-0 in favor of closing CHHS’s open enrollment as well. Later in the year, on October 8, the School Board voted again in favor of closing open enrollment, this time for kindergarten and first grade at North Park Elementary.

When enrollment increases at a certain grade level, school or in a program, the school administration works with the District Center to create a plan for each unique situation,” Executive Director of Educational Services Zena Stenvik said. “In some cases, additional staff are required; in other cases a class may be held in a different space or time frame. Such plans are created with the intention of doing what will be best for the students.”

Closing open enrollment isn’t new to the Columbia Heights school district. CA has been closed for open enrollment for the past three years, as the school is above enrollment capacity.

“[Columbia Academy’s (CA)] enrollment has remained high due to large numbers of students coming through our elementary schools and Columbia Heights families choosing Columbia Heights Public Schools,” Berkas said. “I believe this is good for students, schools, and community. We do better when our system is not stretched too thin.”  

Because of the growing student population, CHHS facilities and scheduling had to be adjusted for the school year. Some larger classrooms, like the AVID room on the second floor, were split in half to accommodate more teachers and students. On top of that, more sections of certain core classes were added. To some teachers, the amount of students per class is noticeably larger. There are also multiple CHHS teachers are on overage, which means every other day they don’t receive a prep hour.

“Three of our social studies teachers are working overage,” social studies teacher Natasha Olubajo said. “I had to give up my prep to teach another class, so I don’t have time to prepare.” 

While some students and staff are having frustrations with the filled hallways and other spaces, the many sections of core classes are keeping individual class sizes low so students aren’t feeling as jammed.

“There are a lot of people in the freshman class, but it’s not a crazy amount,” Tiana Kral (9) said. “My classes are pretty quiet, so it’s not affecting my learning environment.” 

As Independent School District 13 goes through some uncomfortable growing pains, CHPS is working to fit an enlarged student community into the district’s five schools. Many inconveniences have been caused in the form of oversized classes and a full cafeteria, but benefits can be seen in the addition of course sections and a large freshman and sophomore class. CHHS will only hope to sustain these positive enrollment numbers for future years.