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Preliminary enrollment figures released by the Office of Public Instruction Thursday show a slight increase in Montana’s K-12 student population this fall — the second consecutive year of gains following a significant dip during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the latest headcount, conducted in public schools across the state on Oct. 3, Montana’s statewide enrollment has reached 149,879 students. That’s a 681-student increase from OPI’s official enrollment count for the 2021-22 school year, and a gain of 4,247 students since the agency reported a dramatic decline in 2020-21

OPI stated in its announcement that the latest total marks the highest public school enrollment in Montana in 19 years. School districts have until Dec. 31 to change or certify their headcounts, meaning this fall’s numbers may alter slightly before they’re finalized. 

In a statement accompanying the announcement, state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen tied the increase to her agency’s ongoing work revising content standards for math and reading and exploring alternatives to end-of-year standardized tests

“The emphasis on the basics of math and reading and seeking innovative education solutions are needed now more than ever,” she wrote.

OPI’s preliminary enrollment figures also showed continued fluctuation in homeschool enrollment numbers statewide. That total jumped nearly 70% following the onset of the pandemic, from 5,815 registered homeschool students in fall 2019 to 9,868 in fall 2020 — the highest homeschool enrollment in at least three decades. Last year, that number fell to 7,368 students, but rose again this fall to 7,716. Private school enrollment saw a slight increase in OPI’s latest data as well, up from 8,636 in 2021-22 to 8,659 during the current semester. According to OPI, that’s Montana’s second-highest private school enrollment total since the early 2000s, with the 2007-08 school year still the highest.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...