The ‘mystery’ of B.I.’s kindergarten boom

I heard an array of theories to explain the surprise spike in both public and private kindergarten enrollment this year. Some of them are recounted in the story below.

School officials are happy to have a fresh crop of kids sprout up after the last couple years of sagging enrollment.

After talking to a lot of people and looking at national, state and school district demographics and other data, I never did find an answer that seemed to hit the nail squarely on the head. School administrators are also a bit baffled, as were the real estate agents and city planners I talked to.

What’s your theory to explain the island’s kindergarten boom?

Island Schools Flush With New Kindergarten Faces

By Tristan Baurick

With enrollment declining in recent years, Bainbridge school officials were pleasantly surprised this month to find kindergarten classes brimming with a record number of students.

Enrollment at Bainbridge public kindergartens surged by almost 10 percent this year, putting the headcount at 242. Two teachers were hired to handle the overflow at Blakely and Wilkes elementary schools.

“This is not something we predicted, but we are obviously very delighted to have additional kindergarteners,” said Bainbridge Island School District Superintendent Faith Chapel.

This year’s kindergarten enrollment runs counter to the district’s predictions. According to a 2007 district demographic report, enrollment was predicted to hold steady at 222 students between 2007 and 2008, and slowly decline to 217 by 2017, with a low point of 208 kindergarteners in 2010.

Bainbridge’s two largest private schools also reported an unexpected increase. Madrona School and The Island School each reported a 25 percent increase in kindergarten enrollments, and both schools added several children to wait lists.

“We’ve never seen a bump like this before,” said Ann Lovejoy, director of the Waldorf-affiliated Madrona School.

The addition of five new students helped The Island School reach its kindergarten capacity of 18 for the first time.

Despite the added kindergarteners, overall Bainbridge public school enrollment is estimated to drop 1.5 percent this year, largely because of decreases in the upper grades.

Bainbridge High School is expected to see its senior and junior class headcount drop by about 9 percent.

Enrollment across Kitsap County has dropped about 4 percent from two years ago, according to state statistics.

Sagging enrollment is bad news for schools because they receive state funding based on the number of students taking classes. Bainbridge’s 4 percent drop over the two previous years caused a $1.5 million budget shortfall and forced the district to cut teacher positions, reduce library staff hours and eliminate some educational programs.

Over the last five years, kindergarten enrollment has remained fairly steady, hovering at around 220 students each year. The leap this year took many by surprise, and sparked a range of theories to explain it.

Wilkes Elementary Principal Sheryl Belt said some school staff guessed that there may have been a post-9/11 birth boom.

“In times of trouble, people tend to get closer,” she said, referring to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed the September 11th terrorist attacks.

While 2002 saw a small national birthrate decline, the number of births in 2003 spiked by about 700,000, likely giving a boost to kindergarten classes in 2008.

But with a median age of 43 and an average household size of just under three people, Bainbridge does not follow national, state or county birth or population trends.

State demographers are predicting a birth boom will swamp kindergartens, but not for another four or five years. The relatively flat enrollment trend that began in 1999 is predicted to spike in 2012 and continue to grow by about 14,000 students each year.

Some school officials speculated that the recent economic downturn has drawn students away from private schools. But the even larger kindergarten enrollment spike at island private schools likely discounts an economic explanation.

Madrona School has seen a slight increase in kindergarten students from North Kitsap, but public school officials have noted no significant increase in off-island students.

As for the people who have moved to Bainbridge over the last six years, island real estate agent Paul Holzman said the trends have held steady.

“Not a lot of young families have moved here,” the 11-year Bainbridge resident said. “Mostly it’s retirees or families with teenage children.”

Looking at the cul-de-sac he lives on, Holzman estimates 23 children at or under kindergarten age reside nearby. He’s never seen so many young children in his neighborhood.

“Most of (their parents) have lived on the island for a long time,” he said. “They’re not the people who (recently) moved here. They’re the ones who moved here a long time ago, waited a while and now their kids are getting to the kindergarten age.”

Blakely principal Ric Jones made similar observations.

A lot of the kindergarteners are from existing Bainbridge families,” he said. “We’re not seeing a ton of (students) from the new people that moved here.”

Madrona Enrollment Coordinator Missi Goss has observed a small counter trend, with more young families showing interest in her school.

“We’ve read a lot about how housing prices are driving young families off the island,” she said. “But a certain sector of young people who tend to be more corporate, were maybe transferred to the Seattle area or are from Bellevue or Redmond, have been drawn here to get away from the woes of urban life.”

Unclear about the cause of the boom, school officials are hesitant to base new predictions on this year’s enrollment.

“This is a fairly significant increase, but it’s hard to say if it’s a fluke or a trend,” Belt said.

Whatever the cause, educators say the kindergarten boom is a promising sign for island schools.

“It’s a mystery,” said district spokeswoman Pam Keyes. “We’re grateful for it, whatever the mystery is.”