Charters see big enrollment growth amid pockets of steep decline

(Updated Dec. 6, 2 p.m., with comments from FernWaters Charter School Superintendent Kristen Foss.) 

Public charter schools accounted for nearly half of Idaho’s overall enrollment growth from last fall, yet several appear to be reeling from decreased funding after posting some of the state’s steepest enrollment declines.

Enrollment matters because it’s tied to how Idaho carves up about $2 billion in state K-12 funding. The state has used an average-daily-attendance metric since 1994.

A loss of nearly 13 percent of its students has one East Idaho charter “diligently” cutting costs by reassigning teachers, holding off on professional development and marketing its learning environment on social media.

“Every time you have an interactive activity, take pictures and send it to your administration or secretaries so we can get it out on social media,” Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center principal Debbie Steele told faculty in a recent email.

Despite their overall growth, charters accounted for seven of the 10 deepest enrollment declines among districts and charters since last fall, according to the state’s latest preliminary enrollment numbers. Charters also rounded out the top six spots for declines, based on a percentage of each school’s enrollment:

  • Upper Carmen Public Charter reported a loss of 48 students, a 48 percent drop from 2018-19.
  • Boise-based The Village Charter lost 151 kids, or about 31 percent.
  • Idaho Virtual Education Partners lost 67 kids, a nearly 30 percent drop.
  • Jerome-based Heritage Academy lost 41 kids, a 24 percent decline.
  • Project Impact Stem Academy lost 45 kids, almost 18 percent of its enrollment.
  • Blackfoot lost 80 kids, a nearly 13 percent drop.

Upper Carmen’s apparent exodus wasn’t the result of students leaving out of dissatisfaction. Rather, the Salmon-based charter last year stopped serving fourth- through eighth-graders. Nearby FernWaters Charter School last year opened its doors and absorbed many of these older students who either attended or would have attended Upper Carmen, FernWaters Superintendent Kristen Foss told EdNews.

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Declines at other charters follow heightened scrutiny of performance and use of public funds over the last year.

Heritage was thrust into the limelight this summer after becoming the subject of a lengthy and meandering Idaho Public Charter School Commission executive session. Leaked audio from the meeting revealed the commission’s private displeasure with the school’s academic performance and frustrations with its superintendent, Christine Ivie.

The closed-door meeting appeared to violate Idaho’s open meeting law, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office later determined. In September, Ivie filed a $500,000 defamation claim against the commission.

In July, past financial practices at Blackfoot culminated in an investigation of the school’s retired administrator, Fred Ball, at the behest of Bingham County prosecutor Paul Rogers. Authorities are still investigating Ball, Rogers recently told EdNews. Prior to Rogers’ decision to investigate, Blackfoot trustee Dan Cravens suggested in an op-ed that Ball had been “cleared of wronging” and called past reporting about the school “fake news.”

Neither Ivie nor Steele responded to requests for comments about enrollment today, but Steele’s recent letters to staff and parents detail other adjustments at Blackfoot:

  • Eliminating “a couple” of classified personnel positions.
  • Encouraging former students to return.
  • Freezing “unnecessary spending.”
  • Putting a hold on all travel.

“For now, we must follow the sage advice of Dave Ramsey and, ‘Live like no one else so later we can live like no one else’,” Steele wrote.

The Village also found itself under a microscope this year, amid a financial crisis. A third-party review of the school’s financials cited “incompetent” management practices, according to documents obtained by EdNews.

The Village trustee Andrea Estes blamed the school’s recent enrollment decline partially on “negative press,” with “some misinformation” about the school and other charters. She also attributed the downturn to the relocation of some families and need for a bigger marketing campaign to educate the community about charters.

“We’ve adjusted our budget and our staffing to fit within our present enrollment,” Estes said, adding that the school has no plans to close its doors.

Charters enroll just under 10 percent of the state’s roughly 300,000 K-12 public education students, yet the schools accounted for about half of the growth from last fall, adding around 1,700 kids.

Other charters topped growth comparisons, including Gem Prep Pocatello, which purchased new facilities to add 132 students, a nearly 72 percent increase from a year ago. Gem Prep Meridian grew by 42 percent after adding 114 kids.

Further reading: Idaho’s K-12 enrollment continues to grow steadily. Click here for a broader look at where the growth is — and isn’t — happening. 

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