by NATHANIEL NELSON
For the second year in a row, Winona Area Catholic Schools (WACS) has experienced an unprecedented growth in student enrollment. According to newly released data, St. Stan’s Elementary School will have 77 more students this year than last year –– nearly doubling the school’s enrollment in the last five years.
“That’s a big number,” said Pat Bowlin, principal of St. Stan’s. “We thought we’d have an increase, but we didn’t think we would have anywhere near these numbers.”
In the 2015-2016 school year, WACS had 277 students enrolled in kindergarten through sixth grade, and since then, the school’s population has grown to 450, with the largest increase happening this year.
Linda Schrupp, the local admissions coordinator for WACS and Cotter, explained that this year’s enrollment growth particularly caught the school off guard.
“We were not expecting it. With some of the school closures last year, especially Rollingstone, and restructuring in the district … parents didn’t like that,” Schrupp explained. “Thankfully, they’ve come to see what a great school we are, and they seem to be passing it on.”
Last year, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board voted to close Madison and Rollingstone schools, which resulted in a district-wide restructuring where hundreds of students found themselves moving to different schools. Some of those students, Shrupp explained, ended up transferring to WACS, resulting in an increase of 49 students, the largest in the school’s history.
This year, however, that record was unseated.
“I’m always in that nervous position where how do we plan for what’s coming up,” Schrupp said. “The growth we’re having is historic.”
Schrupp explained that part of the sustained student growth across the district comes from five years ago, when tuition was cut in half across the board. Often times, families would find themselves in a bind when students would be moving on from WACS to Cotter, particularly with tuition costs. However, that is no longer the case.
“If you can afford kindergarten, you can afford it all the way through high school,” Schrupp said. “The word is just spreading, which is crazy.”
“To have the gain this year is great news for us, because it’s coming primarily from people who are hearing good things about our school,” Bowlin added.
Bowlin explained that the increase in students this year is particularly strange in that both the fifth- and sixth-grade classes are experiencing the largest increase. Compared to last year, both grades are up by double digits, when normally those grades would experience a bit of a drop off as students move to the public system for middle and high school.
“We have had large kindergarten classes, and you definitely see it in the early numbers, but what’s really encouraging to me is the increase in fifth and sixth grade. When I first started, we would lose students in fifth and sixth grade, but now we have large gains,” Bowlin said. “I think the number-one reason [for the increase] is that people are preferring an elementary school experience.”
WACS differentiates itself from other area school districts in those last two grades, Bowlin explained. At WAPS, fourth graders move onto the middle school for fifth grade, which can be a difficult transition for some students. The shift from one classroom to seven teachers, with different educational paths, electives and alternate programming can be hard for some students to grasp.
“A sixth grader here will have one teacher for about half the day, and that one teacher is the main communication base for the parents,” Bowlin said. “I don’t think the middle-school concept works for fifth- and sixth-grade students. Kids need to feel comfort, and that they have a home base.”
Even so, across the board, WACS is experiencing an increase in its student population, and as a result, the school has needed to adapt to the changing population. Multiple teachers have been added to each grade to account for the bump in student population, and particular attention is being paid to the early grades. Right now, kindergarten classes are at 20 students, while first graders are in classes of 18 and second graders have classrooms filled with 20 students.
“I think those new employees have brought so many gifts and talents to our school, and made it a better school,” Bowlin said. “We’re really trying to keep the school culture … we’re really not changing who we are. We are trying to keep the small-school feeling, and keep that social and emotional learning intact.”
“I knew we’d be fine for this school year, even with our commitment to small sections. We were really, really close in some sections … but we landed just perfectly,” Schrupp added.
The increase isn’t being felt in just WACS, either. Cotter has also had an increase of students this year, explained Cotter President Sister Judith Schaefer.
“We’ve had one not quite as big as them, but we’ve increased our local students by about 30 students,” Sister Schaefer said. “People are choosing private schools because they want a choice.”
But with this increase, what’s next for WACS?
“The thing with enrollment is you just do not know what the future will hold,” Bowlin said. “This year’s increase of 77, and to have more students this year than the previous year with no main factor … that’s terrific. Does this increase continue? I don’t know if anyone can predict that.”
Schrupp explained that the schools follow local trends with student population, and this year, the number of students in the Winona area is down overall. However, WACS and Cotter have both been capturing a larger share of those available students, so tracking future growth is hard to do.
However, ideas are already being floated about how to deal with future growth, particularly if the schools’ trajectory remains where it has been. Cotter’s new addition, Sister Schaefer explained, has been made with an increasing population in mind, but for WACS, building changes may be on the agenda in the coming years.
“We’ve done a really great job in both buildings to create more classrooms, but going forward, that’s our advisory board’s first priority is handling future growth,” Bowlin explained. “We certainly have several ideas that are out there, and we expect to by November at the very latest let people know what we are doing moving forward.”
In the meantime, the new teachers and students are already finding their places in the school, having been in session for the last few weeks.
“They feel comfortable already,” Bowlin said. “We want to have a culture of kindness here, and I really applaud our students, and they are working hard to feel welcome in our schools.”