School Enrollment

First-grade teacher Laurie Every talks with her students Monday at the end of the school day at State Road Elementary School. The class of 13 students is among the smallest Every has had in her 33-year career. Enrollment is down 90 students this year in the La Crosse School District.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune

Fall enrollment numbers confirmed the La Crosse School District’s decade-and-a-half enrollment slide is continuing.

La Crosse is down more than 90 students this year and down 280 students compared with seven years ago, according to Third Friday of September counts provided by the district. Other schools in La Crosse County reported increasing or stable enrollment this year, with Onalaska up nearly 6.5 percent since 2011 and Holmen up more than 4 percent.

La Crosse County Enrollment Numbers

District 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011
Onalaska 3,178 3,164 3,152 3,087 3,046 2,996 2,986
West Salem 1,818 1,814 1,770 1,776 1,802 1,801 1,812
Holmen 3,938 3,894 3,973 3,958 3,895 3,812 3,767
Bangor 595 583 579 571 567 595 601
La Crosse 6,652 6,744 6,789 6,803 6,801 6,865 6,932
Aquinas 993 964 950 989 1,005 1,002 967
Public school total 16,181 16,199 16,263 16,195 1,6111 16,069 16,098

Countywide, enrollment is up slightly from seven years ago but down 80 students from a high of 16,263 in 2015. Districts provide their September headcounts to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and the numbers influence everything from school budgets to how districts and school boards plan for the future.

For La Crosse, the pain of declining enrollment isn’t felt immediately, Superintendent Randy Nelson said. For budgeting purposes, the state uses a three-year rolling average to calculate revenue limits and state aid to help districts that experience spikes in enrollment.

The district has experienced declining enrollment for over 15 years, Nelson said, a trend the district calculates as it budgets, plans for future staffing and considers the best ways to use school space and resources.

Open enrollment has helped the district: More students come into the district from neighboring districts each year than resident students who chose to go to school elsewhere. But like many urban districts, La Crosse doesn’t have much room to grow, unlike neighboring suburbs such as Onalaska and Holmen.

“All of these things play into it,” Nelson said. “There is still an opportunity for development in the city, but not to grow our boundaries.”

The Onalaska school district is up 14 students this year to 3,178, and Holmen is up 44 to 3,938. Bangor is up 12 students to 595 and West Salem, which has had steady enrollment in recent years, is up 4 students to 1,818.

Aquinas Catholic Schools’ enrollment also increased this year, by almost 30 students. During the past seven years, the private school system has seen its enrollment numbers fluctuate between 960 and more than 1,000 students.

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School Enrollment

Layla Greer, 7, works on Lego Creator on her tablet computer Monday during her first-grade class at State Road Elementary School.

Aquinas began participating in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program in 2014 and had 142 students enrolled this year, up more than 30 from last year. The choice program allows families with students meeting certain income eligibility requirements to enroll at a private school using public funds.

Aquinas High School and Blessed Sacrament School saw strong enrollment numbers this year, Aquinas President Ted Knutson said. He felt families were choosing the Catholic school system for its strong teachers and principals.

Open enrollment has been a boon for Onalaska which gained 228 students this year through the state program that lets students attend school at a neighboring district. Onalaska Superintendent Fran Finco said the district resident enrollment and open enrollment growth have combined for an increase of more than 190 students since 2011.

Finco said the state funding attached to those new students has helped Onalaska avoid budget cuts. But as enrollment grows, he said, the district will be cautious to set limits on open enrollment to avoid having more students in a certain grade, school or special needs category than staff can effectively serve.

“Having a steadily increasing population has been a good thing for the district,” he said.

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Nathan Hansen has been the Education Reporter for the Tribune since 2014. Prior to that, he covered education, agriculture and business topics for the Winona Daily News. He is always on the lookout for news tips and can be contacted at 608-791-8234.

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