Figures Won't Lie, but Liars Will Figure: an Investigation into the Claims about WPSD's Enrollment Increase
There is an old chiasmus with several variations along the line of “figures won’t lie, but liars will figure”. The people who hate our school board and the improvements they are making placed this on full display the other day. One of the great things the WPSD board has done is reverse a twenty year trend of declining enrollment in the district. Under their leadership, more families are finding the educational choices they desire and more families from outside the district are seeking to send their children to the WPSD. The haters can’t stand this success so are trying to disparage it. The blog post “WPSD Enrollment Numbers – a closer look” is a lovely recent example of this.
To make their point, they have to commit several errors of commission and omission. The first is excluding a comprehensive review of two decades of declining enrollment. While they would like to begin their history in 2018, a complete examination would consider the school enrollment trajectory over the past 30+ years to see how we arrived at the current crisis of almost half empty school facilities.
In the 1990s, the Woodland Park School District (WPSD) enrollment skyrocketed, supporting construction of Summit Elementary, Columbine Elementary, and expansion of the Woodland Park Middle School. This increase peaked in 2002 at 3,333 students. Then, a steady decrease began as enrollment slid to 2,454 by 2015. This period was also marked by the absence of competitive school board contests as seats were conveniently vacated by incumbents a few months before their term was up and filled with hand picked replacements. After this decline of 879 students, there was a modest enrollment upturn of a few dozen pupils until 2018. Then the bottom fell out. Well before COVID, but concurrent with the incorporation of the Summit Learning Plan and the Restorative Practices Discipline, enrollment collapsed. Families with time or money resources, or a combination of both, found other educational choices for their children. Between 2018 and 2022, enrollment fell from 2512 students to 1832. 680 students, or ~27%, departed for other options in just four years. COVID exacerbated this trend as remote learning woke parents to what their children were learning. This left taxpayer funded school facilities, built to serve 3,605 learners, operating at 51% of their capacity. The reality of closing a school, studied and discussed for years, loomed.
This decline was in contrast to the regional increase in student number. As captured by the Common Sense Institute, the Pikes Peak region grew from 147,331 pupils in 2011 to 157,771 in 2022, an almost 7% increase. Department of Education data relates that Falcon District 49, huddled on the windswept prairie east of Colorado Springs, grew from 14,398 in 2010 to 24,767 in 2022, or 72%. Meanwhile the WPSD in verdant Teller County fell by 36% in the same period. Wow – why would families choose Falcon over Woodland Park? What could the problem possibly be? The haters try to use national and regional trends of increasing exurban and rural living to minimize the current Board’s efforts over the past 18 months. However, they fail to account for the drop in WPSD enrollment while that same trend was booming throughout the previous decades, particularly in our local region.
Having reviewed the historical foundation and regional trends of the current enrollment / facility mismatch, we can now accurately review assertions focused on more recent numbers. Board opponents attempt to have their cake and eat it too, acknowledging the increase in District numbers caused by chartering Merit Academy while failing to give the current Board of Education credit for their decision to do so. In fact, the emergence of Merit Academy on the local education scene helped retain children and families in the Ute Pass Area. Approximately half of Merit Academy’s first year students were not WPSD students the previous year. Of the remaining 50%, half of those families indicated when surveyed that if Merit Academy did not open its doors, they would seek options outside of the existing WPSD offerings. One needs to only review the morning bus line outside the Crystola Roadhouse to Manitou Springs or check that district’s Teller County headcount to see evidence of these type of parental choices. In Merit Academy’s second year, 45% of the waiting list applicants did not attend WPSD institutions the previous year. More excitingly, 16% of the students whose families desired a classical education with a strong focus on character were from outside Teller County. Bottom line, Merit Academy is not only giving families the type of choice that retains their students here, it is attracting students and their families to Teller County. For this action, if not for any other, the current Board deserves credit for acting where their predecessors failed.
Speaking of credit, a correct assertion is that our local population is an aging one. Teller County’s average age is about 11 years older than the Colorado average. That is an immense demographic difference. However, the haters confuse cause and effect on this issue. Our population’s average age is not high because only more mature Americans move here. It is high because young families with young children do not move here and many who were here followed their children’s education path and moved down the pass. Houses cost a lot everywhere in Colorado, not just in the Ute Pass area. We lost our young families and did not attract new ones because of a previous paucity of educational choices. This factor, losing and not increasing the numbers of young people, is what drives our population’s average age sky high. More choices, more innovation, more changes from the failed path of the last two decades are needed to attract and retain the students who could fill our half empty building.
Finally, there is a new hater meme that “It’s difficult to use student enrollment as a measure of a school’s quality.” Balderdash. Enrollment is determined by daily assessments of those most focused on the quality of student education – parents. Parents will do just about anything to ensure their students receive the finest education possible. Many will spend every iota of money and time to best equip their children for the 21stcentury. Isn’t great that our Board sought to provide a public charter school option for those whose wallets and watches don’t enable them to choose a private, distant, or home school option if it best meets their child’s needs? This parental passion, drive, and focus inevitably manifests itself in their decision on where they send their students to be educated. Collectively, these choices determine a school’s enrollment. People as varied as Vladimir Lenin and Ronald Reagan have described this as “voting with your feet” and it is the ultimate measure of satisfaction over an institution’s quality. In the end, it is perhaps the only metric that really matters.