Why did student enrollment drop?

Kaylyn Barns, Nugget staff writer

The construction of East Helena High School was a controversial topic of debate since the idea was initiated, growing only more serious when in Spring 2015, a legislative bill proposing revisions to district eligibility criteria, procedure, and funding requirements of creating a high school within an elementary district, was introduced. 

The proposed bill (Senate Bill 107) would have allowed any elementary school district in Montana with at least 1,000 students to build its own high school–even if the district was located near an existing high school. That bill did not pass, but later a similar bill did pass, which allowed East Helena to build its own high school.

The bill was a statewide affair, as it was being pushed for by local groups in three separate Montana school districts: East Helena Elementary, Lockwood Elementary, and Hellgate Elementary.

In a 2015 Missoulian guest opinion article, reprinted on the Montana Federation of Public Employees website, authors addressed the reasoning behind SB107:Three Montana K-8 districts meet the 1,000-student threshold; Lockwood outside of Billings, East Helena and Hellgate Elementary. None of these districts meet the existing requirements of state law.” The “requirements of state law” referred to the law then in place: in order to build a high school, the nearest existing school had to be 40 miles, or at least 60 minutes away.

East Helena’s support for the passing of this bill in 2015 was the first official indication that the community was willing to legally battle for this project, believing a local school would best serve the needs of its children.

Mary Ann Dunwell, state representative for Helena and East Helena at that time, was initially opposed to SB107 and voted against the proposal granting East Helena–and simultaneously the other communities–the opportunity to construct a high school.

According to Dunwell, if that particular bill had passed, immediate impairment would be promised in devastating proportions to the Helena school district, specifically, Helena High. 

In Dunwell’s eyes, however, the eventual passing of a bill was unavoidable. East Helena, a spirited community, was unlikely to give up its quest. The next best course of action was to compromise, allowing East Helena to build its school, yet construct the plan in a way that would minimize harm to Helena schools’ finances and programs. So, Dunwell and 17 other legislators from both parties revised SB107, attempting to better encourage a mutually beneficial solution.

Dunwell believes it’s important to understand that if SB107 had passed, the Helena School District would be suffering from a much more drastic and devastating loss than we see today.

This new bill–which would affect the East Helena-Helena, Lockwood-Billings, and Hellgate-Missoula communities–would require the passage of a bond to fund and build a new high school. The existing high school would be required to provide instruction to the new high school’s students for a period of time in return for proper payment; in addition, the law clarified the proposed solution to forecasted debt, and provided proportional distribution of block grants to existing schools.

In 2017, SB139 was passed by the state legislature with a vote of 97-3 in the House and 49-0 in the Senate (in comparison, SB107 failed by 52-48 within the Senate.)

As a result of the new bill and the building of East Helena High School, Helena High School has lost a total of, as stated above, about 125 East Helena kids a year, according to HHS Principal Steve Thennis.

An uptick in homeschooling has also impacted our schools’ student population. According to Principal Thennis, a significant portion of students have been lost because of choosing to enroll as home-schooled students. 

For the 2021-22 school year, there were 6 transfers to Jefferson High, 32 transfers to Capital High, 18 transfers to East Helena High, and 19 transfers to homeschool, according to HHS records.

Montana as a whole has shown an upward trend in homeschooling over the past few years.  In an article by Alex Sakariassen, published in Montana Free Press in January of 2021, “the number of students identified as homeschooled rose from 5,815 in 2019 to 9,868 in 2020, a statewide increase of 69.7%. Of those new homeschool students recorded, 3,712 were in grades K-8 and 341 were in high school.” Although COVID-19 is a likely cause, it cannot be definitively declared the leading reason as to why these numbers have increased.

While public school enrollment in the state of Montana has increased overall in the past three years, Lewis and Clark County has declined (however, this data includes enrollment of all grades, not specifically singling out grades 9-12). As shown in data collected by OPI.gov, Helena School District’s high school enrollment (both Helena and Capital high schools) has dropped from 2,693 in the 2019-20 school year, to 2,620, 20-21, then to 2,461 in 21-22. This loss of total students in the district itself could additionally add to the already-problematic factors mentioned above. 

Considering that Helena is growing, it might be expected that high school enrollment would also grow, but that is not the case. According to US Census Bureau QuickFacts, only 19% of Helena residents are under 18, meaning even less are high-school aged. Additionally,  76.55% of households do not have children, and of the 23.45% that do, only a specific amount are high-school aged. 

Many incoming residents are purchasing homes in East Helena because of the more affordable housing, which in turn, results in their kids attending EHHS. A typical home in Helena costs $465,847, (a 16.5% increase from last year) while an East Helena home is typically about $406,345 (a 14.4% increase).

Capital High, however, is experiencing a record number of students and remains largely unaffected by EHHS, as many East Helena residents did not attend CHS to begin with. CHS Principal Brett Zanto said, “The biggest impact has been on the district as a whole–with the overall loss of high school students and the ANB calculation of per pupil payment that the district receives for the overall general budget.” ANB, or average number belonging, is a crucial piece to determining school funding, defined as the “average number of regularly enrolled, full-time pupils attending the public schools of a district” (lawinsider.com)

Zanto said Capital is seeing an increase in students mainly due to the current high school boundary lines (the lines that determine which household will attend CHS vs HHS). Thennis believes changing these boundaries would not provide any long-term solutions.

The causes described above contribute to a majority of the student loss Helena High has experienced. By understanding what has led the district to this point, we can better find lasting solutions that can reverse these effects, prevent future struggles of similar origin, and help our school thrive.