Courier Staff Writer
This year’s seniors weren’t even in nursery school the last time Iowa’s student population rose.
The Iowa Department of Education said Thursday the state’s enrollment rose this school year for the first time since 1996; that’s 17 years.
“Kindergarten is our largest of the 13 grades we have,” said Davis Eidahl, Ottumwa school superintendent. “About 60 more students atttend kindergarten than [the number of seniors who] will be graduating. I don’t know if this is a trend, but with all the growing opportunities in southeast Iowa and Ottumwa, we hope to start maybe seeing a growth trend.”
A total of 476,245 students are enrolled in Iowa schools this year, an increase of 2,741 students. But that’s still down from the peak of 654,000 students in 1972-73. Locally, Moulton-Udell saw a boom, and, to a lesser extent, Ottumwa had some growth, too. In fact, Ottumwa has been one of the districts that didn’t lose many students in recent years.
At one time, the steadiness of the local district compared to others was explained by rising numbers of Hispanic students as their parents found work in Ottumwa. Though Wapello County was once called the U.S. county with the largest increase of Hispanic residents, that’s not where credit goes this time, Eidahl believes.
“Over the past several years, they have leveled off our declining enrollment. They helped us maintain our enrollment,” he said. “[However] there was no increase in our minority population starting about five years ago.”
The state points to higher birth rates nationally between 2003-08 as a reason for the increase.
“This statewide increase is refreshing news for Iowa after years of declining enrollment. However, the reality is that this increase most likely is temporary,” said Jay Pennington, chief of the Iowa Department of Education’s Bureau of Information and Analysis.
Especially after years of what he called a population in “free fall,” this is good news.
“Iowa is a good place to live,” said Missy Carson-Roark, principal at Horace Mann Elementary School, “and a good place to send your kids to school, Iowa and Ottumwa. We know our test scores have been down, and we are working ways to improve.”
In fact, it’s going to take hard work over a period of time — grit and endurance — but hard work isn’t something that Iowans are afraid of, she said. That and an education system that is still better than average.
“This community is getting better,” she said. “There’s a lot of good in Ottumwa.”
Eidahl said that can help keep a community growing.
“It’s almost a perfect storm,” said Eidahl. “The foundation is there now with a lot of good things in place.”
If a community has “good things” in place, then families look for two main goals: Are there good schools and are there work opportunities?
“As a community,” Eidahl said, “if we focus on jobs and education, we’ll be successful.”
Matt Milner of CNHI contributed to this article.