If history is any indication, Steamboat Springs will find itself larger and more affluent after this period of economic uncertainty - as it did following recessions in the early 1990s and post-9/11, said Scott Ford, a local financial consultant.
Since moving to Steamboat in 1992, Ford has worked with the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, Steamboat Springs School District and Colorado Mountain College's Small Business Resource Center. He said school enrollment likely would increase in Steamboat during the recovery period after a recession, after people experience "cataclysmic events" in their lives that force them to make a change - such as moving their families to a mountain town.
But he didn't expect the increase in enrollment that's occurring right now. Ford said it was surprising to him that numbers are up for the Steamboat Springs School District this school year, which began Aug. 24.
"The general feeling was that people had left the area, people had folded up their tents and went away," he said. "That certainly has happened, but based on this information, some families have found a way to stay."
The district's enrollment has increased, as of this week, to 2,154 students - including North Routt Community Charter School, which grew by six students - from 2,139 last year. It's the seventh year in a row the district's enrollment has increased.
The official student count will occur Oct. 1. That count determines the amount of per-pupil spending the district receives from the state.
Because of larger incoming first- and sixth-grade classes, the district hired two additional teachers, one for each grade. Steamboat had some students who transferred from local private schools, and Superintendent Shalee Cunningham has said the surge in enrollment in lower grade levels indicated more young families moving to the area.
Reasons for the rise
Steve Hofman, a Steamboat resident who served as an assistant secretary of labor under President George H.W. Bush and is a former director of research and policy for the Republican leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives, gave four possible reasons for the school enrollment increase.
- A down economy has a disproportionate impact on the transient or younger work force, who move to Steamboat for a year or two and don't establish roots in the community.
- Some members of the city's work force who would impact school enrollment numbers, such as those in construction fields, may live outside of Steamboat.
- Parents aren't putting their children in the area's private schools or have removed them in favor of public schools.
- And the timing of the recession in Steamboat is six months to a year behind the rest of the country and people who are hanging tough, waiting for the economy to bounce back, haven't felt its effects as fully or deeply.
But Hofman added a caveat.
"If similar trends we've seen continue through the winter, with less construction and less jobs, we may see people and families leave," he said.
Impacts on private schools
Enrollment at local private institutions, The Lowell Whiteman School (grades 9 to 12) and Christian Heritage School (grades K to 12), are down this year.
Lowell Whiteman saw its enrollment decrease by 16 students this year, said Walt Daub, director of the school. But Daub said that was mostly attributed to the school's record graduating class last year of 32 being replaced by this year's freshman class of 18. He said only two students who were eligible to return this year didn't.
Daub added that the amount of financial aid provided to students was up 30 percent this year. He said the school is giving financial aid to 36 percent of its 80 students, up 6 percent from last year.
"I'm into my 12th year, and this is the most financial aid we've awarded since I've been here," he said.
He said the school, which costs local students $17,700 and boarding students $32,900 to attend this year, has received inquiries from students and expects to add about five more by October.
Christian Heritage - which charges a $6,200 tuition for lower school students (K to 5) and $6,700 for upper school students (6 to 12), with discounts for siblings - saw its enrollment decrease by 10 students this academic year. Administrator Dave Entwistle has said some of those students left because of economic factors, while the school loses some high school-age students to Steamboat Springs High School because it has a wider selection of available programs.
Enrollment at Lowell Whiteman Primary School, which has a $12,000 per-student tuition this year, has remained steady at 60 students for the past six years, said Nancy Spillane, director of the school. She said they have no room in their existing facility to grow. She said 83 families are in the school's waiting pool.
Not the same across Routt
The South Routt and Hayden school districts haven't seen the enrollment increases that Steamboat has, but they haven't exactly dropped off, either.
South Routt's enrollment dipped by two students this year, to 440 from 442 in 2008-09. Hayden, which begins classes Tuesday, projects its enrollment will decline to 458 students this year from 465 students last year.
Hayden also is projecting its enrollment to decline for the next two years, to 444 in 2010 and 433 in 2011. Superintendent Greg Rockhold said last year's large graduating class of 32 and smaller average class sizes for the next few years were the reasons for the projected declines - not necessarily families leaving Hayden.
Rockhold said those numbers are subject to change.
"We'll see what the roller coaster ride will do for us Tuesday," he said, referring to the start of the school year, which is Tuesday. Rockhold added that unless the bottom falls out and a number of families move out of the district, he only expects their enrollment numbers to decrease slightly in the next few years.
Ford added that people fighting through tough economic times indicated something about their personalities.
"It just shows the tenacity characteristic of people who come here and live here," he said. "They're stubborn. They find ways to survive."
Ford said that's an encouraging sign for the community.