Student increase could mean large funding boost for Skagway School

Administrators in the Skagway School District say there are more than 100 students in the K-12 school this year. That is a significant increase from recent years, in which enrollment hovered between 60 and 80. If the district does have a student count in the hundreds this year, that could mean a large increase in state funds.

Music teacher James Baldwin sings with first and second graders. (Emily Files/KHNS)
Music teacher James Baldwin sings with first and second graders. (Emily Files/KHNS)

On a recent afternoon, a couple dozen first and second graders are learning a French song for the school’s holiday show. Teacher Courtney Ellingson looks on. She’s been at the school for about 13 years. She says she and her students have noticed the increased enrollment.

“I had an elementary student pose the question to me, ‘what will we do when we have so many kids that we run out of classrooms?’ Which I thought was really funny, and thought was kind of interesting that they are aware and wondering how things might change.”

Ellingson teaches in a combined Kindergarten through second grade classroom. It’s those grade that have seen the biggest boom in students.

“Our school was built for this, our school was built to have over 100 students,” said superintendent Dr. Josh Coughran.

But it hasn’t been that way in a number of years. Skagway always sees a larger number of students in August and September and then in April, coinciding with the cruise ship season and influx of seasonal workers. But last time year-round enrollment leveled out to more than 100 was in the 2007-8 school year. Then it went down — a lot.

“Yep, that was probably the lowest, maybe four years ago,” Ellingson remembers.

In the 2011-12 year, there were less than 60 students. Ellingson says staff and programs were cut and she was worried for her job.

“You know, I was the newest teacher on the block, so to speak, so I was a little worried and trying not to be, and trying to stay the course,” she said. “But thank goodness numbers are back up and I’m here still.”

The larger numbers also mean more money.  Alaska school districts receive a per-student allocation from the state. So more students, more funding. Last year, the district received about $700,000 for around 80 students. The magic number the district is hoping for this year is 101, or more. Then, the funding jumps to over a million dollars.

“There’s a pretty significant bump if you are over 100 students,” Coughran said. “If we do, that presents us with some opportunities.”

Elizabeth Nudelman from the Alaska Department of Education explained why per-student funding goes up when enrollment reaches 101. She says it’s to help pay for things like additional teachers or classrooms that schools require when they have more students.

The student count is determined over four weeks in October. So, the number of kids who go to class this month determines the school’s funding for the rest of the year.

The Skagway district and school board are making an effort to get community input on how they should spend the potential increase in funding.

“Is it more arts integration, is a foreign language program, is it a full-year band and music program? All of those things are on the table,” Coughran said. “Not to mention other full-time teachers that can split the load with teachers already in the building.”

Coughran says there’s always one major concern about hiring new teachers: the town’s housing shortage.

“The last couple of time that we’ve found new teachers, it’s really been a scramble to find a place for them to live,” he said. “So that I see as the biggest obstacle or challenge.”

As for what’s causing this spike in enrollment, Coughran and Ellingson both say it seems like more people have been staying year-round and there are young families having kids. That’s why a lot of the increase is in the elementary grades.

Coughran doesn’t think this increase is an anomaly. He says a large preschool population means the district could see the number of students increase to 120 and beyond. That would bring the school to numbers that they haven’t seen in more than ten years.

The school district has a survey on its website about how increased funding should be spent. A town hall around that question is planned for January.