For the past several years, officials of rural school districts in Whitman County have observed steady decreases in average enrollment totals, while in Pullman the numbers have grown every year.
In the Palouse School District, fewer than 200 children have been counted as full-time equivalent (FTE) students since 2008-’09. The tally then was 198 FTE students, but this school year totals have only reached 182 so far. Numbers were not available from the Colton School District, but the population in Colfax also is dwindling, from an average of 653 FTE students counted in 2006-’07 down to about 624 this school year.
“It’s been a progressional decrease,” Colfax Superintendent Michael Morgan said last week, explaining that the district has been losing an average of about 10 students each year.
The trend may be connected in some ways to changes in the farming industry. Palouse School District Superintendent Bev Fox said farms have to be bigger now in order to be successful, so there is room for fewer farmers in any given area. And Morgan pointed to technological advances that have eliminated the need for as many workers on local farms.
“The communities in general don’t have as many jobs as they used to,” Fox said Thursday.
With fewer full-time positions available for residents, Morgan and Fox said, families in their jurisdictions tend to leave the area in search of employment. Many are able to find positions in Pullman, but Fox said those people usually move to the bigger city rather than pay for fuel to drive from Palouse on a daily basis.
Since 2006-’07, more students have been counted in the Pullman School District each year. In 2010-’11 the average tally was set at 2,263, up from 2,202 the two previous years.
For eight years before that the numbers fluctuated between 2,100 and 2,160 students, but Superintendent Paul Sturm said he and his administrative staff hope the total will stay closer to the current count.
“We’ve been very cautious, (but) we’re becoming more confident that we’re at a new level,” Sturm said Thursday. “We’ve seen increases now for four years.”
Enrollment numbers at Pullman High School have fallen of late, he added, but this year that group grew as well.
The new students aren’t all coming from rural Whitman County, Sturm said, though he agreed that people throughout the nation may be moving toward more populated areas due to economic problems. Sturm said there are other ways to explain the growth in Pullman, however.
“There are several factors that we think have contributed,” he said, pointing first to the increase in home construction in Pullman over the past 10 years. “I think that (housing) capacity is becoming gradually filled and saturated.”
In addition, he said Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories and other Pullman businesses have continued to grow and attract new employees to the city, while Washington State University has increased the number of students accepted into graduate programs locally.