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A NUMBERS GAME: As northern suburbs expand, several Class 5A schools could make the jump in near future

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Minnesota State High School League enrollments are more than just numbers.

They are information — and when properly analyzed — can be quite prophetic. Enrollments can contextualize a school’s position within the greater landscape of the MSHSL while exposing a community’s growth beyond just the school district. These numbers can also flesh out population trends, demographics and aid in forecasting possible movement and reclassification within the MSHSL.

The League recently released its biennial figures and a number of things stand out, none more significant than the fact that every Steele County area high school displayed at least a minimal amount of growth. Owatonna added 54 students and stands at 1,328. NRHEG jumped to 251 (up 21 students); Medford to 240 (up three) and Blooming Prairie to 188 (up 15).

To be clear, the numbers released by the MSHSL are not a school’s complete population census as the League applies a somewhat confusing formula that takes into account free and reduced lunches. Here is the exact formula utilized according to MSHSL.org: “Per the Board of Director’s policy, enrollments for determining Administrative Regions and Section Placements are computed as follows: a school’s actual 9-12 enrollment will be used; 40% of the reported free/reduced lunch counts in grades 9-12 will be subtracted from the school’s actual 9-12 enrollment; the result will determine the schools enrollment for classification purposes.”

According to U.S. News and World Report, Owatonna’s actual enrollment is 1,459, so that should give a pretty good idea of how to contrast MSHSL’s data.

Major growth in northern suburbs will impact Class 5A football

When it comes to enrollment numbers, no sport is more heavily impacted than football. With seven classifications — 9-Man through Class 6A — the cutoff between the top 32 schools (Class 6A) and Owatonna’s division (Class 5A) is constantly changing, and based on the latest data, several rapidly-growing schools could alter the scenery of the classification that the Huskies have dominated since 2012.

One of the biggest leaps in enrollment came from Owatonna’s budding rival, Elk River. The district stood at exactly 1,500 two years ago and is currently listed at 1,602. It appears as though ERHS would be a prime candidate to elevate to Class 6A come 2021, but the school has apparently maxed out and will begin to plateau moving forward. It’s one of the largest schools in Class 5A and it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

The same, however, cannot be said for fellow ISD 728 member, Rogers. The high school is currently listed at 1,511, which is significantly larger than its 2012 number of 1,161. In a seven-year span, the school has constructed a third wing of classrooms, blasted past Rochester John Marshall, Rochester Century, Owatonna and Mankato West and is now the 12th largest school in Class 5A. Conversely, Elk River has added a net of just 30 students in the same time period.

Rogers High School’s spike in enrollment has coincided with the area’s booming growth in the last decade. In 2005, the city was listed at 6,701 and has since doubled in population. Nestled in the far northwest area of the Twin Cities commuter region with ample room to grow, there is no reason to believe the school can’t surpass 1,800 students in the near future and leap to Class 6A. A similar trend is taking place in fellow outer-rung suburban schools Farmington, St. Michael-Albertville and Shakopee — all of which displayed significant enrollment increases over the last two years. STMA won a state championship in Class 5A in 2015 and has competed in Class 6A since the beginning of the 2017 season.

More imminently, the far northern suburb of Andover appears to be on the fast-track to elevating to Class 6A as the high school plans to add a wing to its main building that would accommodate an additional 400 students. The latest data has AHS listed as the fifth-largest Class 5A institution at 1,625, meaning the school would likely make the jump even if it filled just half of the additional space in the next two years.

“I am getting long in the tooth and I can still remember when Richfield was dominant, and all the sudden it was Bloomington, and then Burnsville,” long-time Owatonna football coach Jeff Williams said. “Then it was Apple Valley and then it became the Lakevilles. It continues to move outward and I’m not sure how far it’s going to go, but you can see the rung expanding. It’s like a ripple effect when you drop a stone in water.”

Based on the explosion of growth within the city, it should come as no surprise that each Rochester high school added to its MSHSL enrollment in the last two years as Mayo displayed the greatest growth within the Big Southeast District, leaping from 1,434 to 1,532. The massive classes within the city are only 4-5 years away from reaching the high school level, so the district has some serious decisions to make as each building is already filled to maximum capacity. Mayo is the only school that could be forced up to Class 6A in the next 2-4 years, but would need to add at least another 200 students, so it’s possible, but highly unlikely based purely on space.

More realistically, it appears as though Rogers, Andover, and Coon Rapids, will elevate starting in 2021, making it entirely feasible that both Lakeville schools stumble from the top 32 and become eligible to move down. Before Owatonna fans panic, it’s extremely unlikely that North would elect to do this. The school won the Class 6A state championship in 2018 and has consistently proven to be one of the premier “big school” football programs in the entire state. Choosing to drop to Class 5A simply wouldn’t make sense.

More realistically, Lakeville South, Robbinsdale Armstrong and/or Buffalo would move down.

The future of Class 5A and 6A football “will depend somewhat upon whether or not St Thomas Academy makes the jump,” Williams said. “Right now, they are content to be 5A and compete at that level. Private schools really are the x -actor and can opt-up and I think we will continue to see growth in outer-rings, and if they stay with a top 32, there will be too many teams and we will see larger schools like Buffalo that would be 6A based on enrollment, but will compete in 5A. The top 32 will become over-populated and the enrollment disparity will grow.”

Rochester area schools on the rise

Gazing much further into the future, the next wave of MSHSL class movement that could affect Owatonna comes from Rochester’s booming bedroom communities of Kasson, Mantorville and Byron.

Kasson-Mantorville High School — which has already been shifted into the Big Southeast District for football and will play three schools with at least 1,000 students in this fall — surpassed 600 students for the first time ever and could someday become a full-fledged member of the Big Nine Conference. The same can be said for Byron, which added almost 80 students in the last two years and now stands at 597. The Bears will also play multiple Class 5A teams in 2019.

“A similar situation happened in St. Cloud where all the sudden Sauk Rapids-Rice and Cold Spring were getting big and people wanted get to the suburbs, so to speak,” Williams said. “Kasson, Byron and even Stewartville are each gaining in enrollment. People are looking for that suburban lifestyle, and we see that in Owatonna with people choosing to educate their kids in Medford and live in larger acreage and smaller class sizes. I think you will see that Byron will become something like Sartell and become a full member of the Big Nine with Kasson-Mantorville someday.”

Big SE Red shows growth from all 6 schools

Each school within the Big Southeast District Red Division displayed growth in the last two years. Mayo is the largest school at more than 1,500 students and is followed by John Marshall (1,468), Century (1,365) and Owatonna.

Northfield added about 25 students per grade and jumps to 1,252 while Mankato West made the leap from 1,054 to 1,101.

On the other side of the district, Faribault dipped below 1,000 and lost about 4.5% of its enrollment (1,004 to 958) while the Blue Division’s largest school, Austin, stayed relatively steady at 1,096.

Reach sports editor Jon Weisbrod at 444-2375, or follow him on Twitter.com @OPPJonW

Award-winning Sports Editor for the Owatonna People's Press, Weisbrod has worked in daily newspapers his entire career. He writes a regular column called Beyond the Box that delves into local, regional and national sports storylines.

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