500 Students Fewer- The Lost Enrollment of Helena High

500 Students Fewer- The Lost Enrollment of Helena High

Will Eaton, Writer

How has Helena High lost more than 500 students and over $4.4 million in just four years? Why have classes been cut? What has caused this? Opening a new high school in East Helena is one of the major causes of this substantial drop in student enrollment at Helena High. 

The following article is one of several in a Nugget series detailing different aspects of this issue. We will continue to publish stories on this issue as it continues to develop. 

To talk about the situational data, I interviewed Helena High Principal Steve Thennis and other school officials. 

Mr. Thennis has been a part of Helena High School (HHS) staff for 31 years, with 11 of those as principal. He has seen the school’s enrollment fluctuate more than almost anyone and has had to deal with the effects. Mr. Thennis testified at the legislature on several occasions against the building of East Helena High School (EHHS). Along with many in the district, he knew it wasn’t a secret that the creation of EHHS was eventually going to happen. 

For over 20 years, HHS enrollment remained stable at above 1,500 students, according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, For example, in the 2017-18 school year, HHS had 1,523 students, and in the 2018-19 school year had 1,538 students. 

The 2019-20 school year changed that when HHS enrollment dropped to 1,340 students.

Graph made by Will Eaton using OPI statistics 

Starting in 2019, EHHS phased in a new class of students each year following. Before EHHS opened its doors in 2020, incoming ninth-grade students were the first to phase into East Helena High.  In the 2019-2020 school year, “students attended their freshman year in East Valley Middle School,” wrote Helena High Counselor Chrissy Murgel in an email. “The high school opened in the fall of 2020 and as Sophomores, students went to school in the new building.” The class of 2023, the current senior class, will be the first graduating class from EHHS.  

Janelle Mickelson, Business Services Administrator for Helena Public Schools, further explained the transition. “East Helena K-12 gradually opened grade levels for resident students and Helena SD [School District] was required to provide education services for grade levels that East Helena K-12 did not offer,” said Ms. Mickelson via email. 

“It’s impossible to know exactly how many resident students were in the East Helena K-12 [district] or whether or not they would have attended Helena HS [High School] each of the four years of transition,” she went on to say. 

According to EHHS Principal Brian Kessler, as of December 2022, the school’s freshman class had 164 students, the sophomore class had 163, the junior class had 120, and the senior class had 129 students.

Assuming that most of these students would have gone to Helena High had Senate Bill 139 not passed, that is a loss of 576 students. 

Read Kaylyn’s story regarding the legislative bills and their effect on enrollment here

So, it is evident that HHS enrollment began declining in the 2019-20 school year and continued to drop according to OPI records:

2019-20:  1,340 students at HHS

2020-21:  1,254 students at HHS

2021-22:  1,115 students at HHS

2022-23:  1,002 students at HHS

These numbers are much lower than the historic enrollment rates above 1,500 students–reaching even above 1,600 students–according to a graph from Public Schools Review that lists numbers from 1991 to the year 2021: 

Graph from Public Schools Review  

With these declining numbers, will Helena High be able to retain its AA high school classification? In Montana, the four High School Association classes are defined as Class AA: 779 students or more; Class A: 307-778 students; Class B: 108-306 students; and Class C: 1-107 students according to the Montana High School Association.  Because the phasing process to East Helena High has been completed, HHS should be able to stay a Class AA school.

HHS has also lost enrollment due to transferring. In the 2021-22 school year, for example, the school lost 32 students to Capital High School (CHS), 19 students to homeschooling, 18 students to EHHS, and 6 students to Jefferson High School (JHS), according to HHS transfer records. 

Within the current school year, HHS has lost 13 students to homeschooling, 12 students to EHHS, and 9 to JHS as of January 27, 2023.

As school funding is based on enrollment, declining student numbers at HHS have impacted the budget. “If there’s not students in the seat, then we run into a budget crisis, and something has to go,” Mr. Thennis noted.  

To learn what exactly has left HHS as a result of this and other factors, read Thomas’s story detailing the cut classes here.  

How much money has Helena High lost? It’s difficult to find an exact number, but if we pair East Helena High School enrollment data with funding formulas, we can estimate the amount (disregarding homeschooling and other transfers). Funding is based on the “Average Number Belonging” (ANB), the official student count per school used by the state of Montana. “It is the formula based on factors that include enrollment on two count dates, PIR days, and an average school year of 180 days,” according to an Office of Public Instruction website.

In an email, Business Services Administrator for Helena Public Schools Janelle Mickelson wrote, “If we assume all 576 students [enrolled at EHHS] are enrolled full-time, that equates to 599 ANB.” To calculate student earnings, Ms. Mickelson used the average from 2020-2023, which is $7,256.23 for the per ANB entitlement and $16,216 for the basic entitlement. 

“599 ANB generates approximately $4,346,483 in per student ANB,” Ms. Mickelson calculated. In addition to this funding, districts are granted further basic entitlements for each additional 80 ANB over 800 students. So, “599 ANB in the Helena High School District would generate approximately $113,512 in additional basic entitlement,” Ms. Mickelson explained. This culminates in an estimated total loss of funds to Helena High of $4,459,995 over four years (fiscal years 2020-2023). This money comes from state and local tax dollars. 

Some people favor redrawing boundary lines as a way to increase enrollment at Helena High. However, this is a sensitive and heavily debated topic that also presents logistical issues.

When asked if redrawing boundary lines would change enrollment numbers, Assistant Superintendent Josh McKay wrote, “The board of trustees has initiated a district process called the facilities master plan. This process is intended to take into account our district needs in terms [of] facility needs for students. The boundary conversation is part of this process.” 

He went on to write, “Frequently, folks misunderstand the school districting. Some think Helena could get students back from East Helena by re-districting. This is not possible; the only way HHS could grow significantly is if students were made by the boundary to have to attend HHS instead of CHS. But this also means the same for CRA [CR Anderson Middle School] and HMS [Helena Middle School].” 

This topic brings up multiple questions about re-districting which The Nugget will explore in the future. 

After the extensive analysis of these data points, it’s apparent Helena High has suffered a substantive loss. Enrollment numbers, financial reports, and controversies within the Helena community all showcase how difficult this subject matter is. As schools compete for students, who will succeed and who will suffer the losses? We will continue to update the community as this issue progresses.