Kindergarten enrollments anticipated on par with past years in Northern Hills

School superintendents in the Northern Black Hills anticipate kindergarten classes this fall to be similar in size to recent years. This is a difference from what school leaders anticipate on the national level as many parents kept their children home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some districts anticipate a 20% increase this coming school year. Pioneer file photo

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NORTHERN HILLS — Northern Hills schools are bucking a national trend of increased kindergarten enrollment numbers, as they say expected registrations are right on par with recent years.

Though official enrollment count will not be available until the second week in September, school superintendents say early registration numbers point to about the same number of incoming kindergartners as in previous years. That’s different from national numbers, where some districts are seeing enrollment increases as much as 22%, as parents opted to hold their children back last year due to the pandemic.

In Orange County, Fla., there are estimates that the incoming kindergarten class could be 17% bigger than in fall 2020 and officials are planning a 5 1/2 week transition program this summer at some of its neediest schools.

In Minnesota, the St. Paul district is anticipating nearly 22% more kindergartners than in fall 2020.

In Spearfish, Superintendent Kirk Easton said he is expecting about 161 kindergartners to walk through the doors of Mountain View Elementary this year. That compares to last year’s 155.

Don Kirkegaard, superintendent of the Meade School District, which has elementary schools in Whitewood, Sturgis, Piedmont, and five rural schools that accept kindergarten students, said his numbers are up just slightly to 266, from 250 kindergartners last year. Kirkegaard said he expects that number to grow somewhat, but not to an unmanageable number.

“I don’t anticipate 300 kids in kindergarten, but I anticipate 275-plus,” he said.

In Lead-Deadwood, Elementary Principal Tim Kosters also reports similar numbers from previous years. Based on the kindergarten screening and registrations that were held last spring, he is expecting about 36 new kids to start school next year, with another 10 or 15 added to that number as the summer wraps up.

“I would assume that we will have class sizes very similar to what we’ve had in the past,” Kosters said.

Belle Fourche Superintendent Steve Willard said his numbers are slightly down from last year by about 15 kindergartners. Usually there are more enrollments in the two weeks leading up to school starting, Willard said, but he still expects his numbers to be slightly lower.

“One of our biggest problems is we don’t have housing in Belle Fourche,” he said. “We don’t have enough housing for people, even if they wanted to come here. So our enrollment could be down 25 kids from last year.”

In addition to enrollment numbers, kindergarten preparedness is a concern across the nation, as preschools shut down last year with the pandemic.

“The job of the kindergarten teacher just got a lot harder,” said Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. He coauthored a report that found that the number of 4-year-olds participating in preschool fell from 71% before the pandemic to 54% during the pandemic, with poor children much less likely to attend in-person.

In the Northern Hills, school officials said kindergartners have always come with differing skill levels, and educators are prepared to meet the students “where they’re at.”

“That’s such a hard thing to gauge because it depends on the family involvement and how much the parents work with the children,” Willard said about how prepared this year’s kindergartners will be.

Kosters said while preschool can help a students’ readiness, not all students enter school at the same level regardless of their pre-K education. “Anything having to do with not attending preschool will affect how our students perform in kindergarten,” he said. “But I would say not all kindergartners enter school at the same level anyway, so we will do our best to meet kids where they are and educate from that point forward.”

Learning loss is a concern in every district for students across all grades, as each of the four Northern Hills districts have made additional hires to address any deficiencies that could be a result of last year’s online learning environment or homeschooling. In Lead-Deadwood and Spearfish, the districts have hired interventionists for math and English, to help any students who have fallen behind. In Belle Fourche, Willard said he hired more of his existing teachers to take on summer school classes. He also used CARES Act and ARP funding to hire three interventionist instructors for math and English.

If local educators are expecting any increases in enrollment numbers, it’s from families who chose to educate their children at home last year due to the pandemic.

“This last school year our numbers were down and we attribute that to the pandemic,” Easton said. “We had more parents homeschooling children because they didn’t want them to attend. I believe the enrollment will be back up this year either by those parents sending kids back to school or just people moving back to the area.

“We had 195 students at our all time high last year that were doing their school work online,” he continued. “We haven’t been able to assess them to see if there has been learning loss there. So we’ll spend the first couple of months assessing those students.”

According to the S.D. Department of Education, homeschooling was indeed on the rise in 2020, compared to previous years. In the Meade School District the state office recorded 184 public school exemption certificates in 2019, and in 2020 that number jumped up to 345. In Spearfish there were 139 homeschoolers listed in 2019, with 194 in 2020. In Lead-Deadwood the number in 2019 was 46, while in 2020 it climbed to 61. In Belle Fourche the number of homeschoolers listed more than doubled, with 44 listed in 2019 and 91 in 2020.

Northern Hills school officials said they expect those homeschooling numbers to go down in the 2020-21 school year.

“This last school year our numbers were down and we attribute that to the pandemic,” Easton said. “More parents were homeschooling their children because they didn’t want them to attend. I believe enrollment will be back up this year either by those parents sending kids back to school or just people moving back to the area.”

School districts in South Dakota take official enrollment numbers on the second Friday in September. Before that time, enrollment estimates are based on multiple factors, including early registrations and kindergarten screening.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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