There was a time when the kind of seven-day enrollment report we saw this week would spark calls to “get this city growing again.” OK, fine. Any suggestions?
Build a pork-processing plant? Develop a business park? Play up life sciences? Bring in Chiefs camp?
Check, check, check and check.
The truth is, St. Joseph largely missed out on the postwar economic boom and watched as Columbia and Springfield passed us by in terms of population growth. Now, aging baby boomers are retiring at a time when some millennials, burdened with debt, are putting off starting a family. Everyone seems to know someone who prefers to live in Kansas City and commute to St. Joseph for a job.
The St. Joseph School District isn’t the only entity faced with demographic challenges. With little fanfare, a steering committee is holding listening sessions this month on the future of Catholic schools in St. Joseph.
The topic of stagnant population would likely surface as an issue that affects all schools, but it is the larger public education system that provides a glimpse of St. Joseph’s future. The SJSD seven-day enrollment count wasn’t alarming in and of itself — some described the 1 percent decline as “slight” — but it did reflect a slow erosion that at some point needs to be addressed. The student head count is down 7 percent in the last 10 years in district schools.
Of 23 schools, 14 experienced declining enrollment in the last year, including two of three high schools and half of the middle schools.
District officials were careful to avoid using the report as justification for reducing the number of high schools, which is a possible outcome of a facilities review. For the rest of us, it was hard not to see the correlation.
Lafayette High School’s enrollment dropped by 55, and Benton now has fewer than 700 students. With 1,648 students, Central is the city’s largest high school but lags behind Park Hill’s 1,900 students and the more than 1,700 at both high schools in Liberty.
In St. Joseph, the largest enrollment growth came from Webster Secondary, which provides alternative school opportunities. That speaks volumes, not to the good work going on inside that building, but to the challenges facing St. Joseph.
Some will see a new or renovated high school facility as a key to attracting families and launching a new era of population growth. They should realize the same was said once of Triumph Foods, business parks and more.
The bigger justification, if the district decides to close a high school, would be playing the hand you’re dealt. We’ve waited a long time for population growth that’s more than a blip.
The wait continues.