By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

An aging population in Del Norte County is being blamed as one reason for a decline in school enrollment and less need for teachers, according to school officials.

Superintendent Frank Lynch of the Del Norte County Unified School District said the problem of waning school enrollment is region-wide. Lynch said enrollment in kindergarten and other lower grades just aren?t keeping up with graduating students in Del Norte County.

?We?re losing 100 to 160 children in the next three years, which is seen through a linear projection from kindergarten through the 12th-grade,? said Lynch. ?We can project what all the reasons might be, but it is a natural decline through the system.?

According to current and projected population figures in the 2000 Del Norte County Economic and Demographic Almanac, the county median age in 1990 was 33.7 years. By 2005, the median age is predicted to be 36 years. Some of this is due to an influx of adults 45 years old and older.

This is also coupled with a local birthrate that had declined in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This created a population bulge of older students moving through the county school system who will graduate soon and will not be replaced with equal numbers of younger students.

Another factor is a recent exodus of students who are now enrolling in the Castle Rock Charter School Program where students receive home-schooling. Seventy-eight students transferred from the classroom to the Castle Rock Program between September 2001 and February 2002.

?Yeah, it?s got to affect (overall enrollment) somehow, but to what extent is another question, because they are doing a fantastic job in bringing in kids that had completely dropped out of the school system, or were about to,? said Lynch.

Lynch said many adults who never graduated are also enrolling in the charter program to complete their schooling and earn a diploma.

Although Castle Rock enrollment is included in school district enrollment figures, it still removes students from classrooms and reduces the need for teaching staff.

Earlier this month, the school board indicated it will probably reduce its staff by 10.5 teachers in the coming year through both retirement and attrition. Assistant Superintendent Rodney Jahn said further cuts may become necessary if the trend continues into 2003.

Lynch said he believes an invigorated local economy would do wonders for reversing the trend.

?A lot of it is linked to the economy of the community,? Lynch said. ?But seeing this is pretty typical throughout the northern part of the state. You can say it?s linked to the economy, the birthrate being down, people leaving rural settings for metropolitan areas and probably added reasons. It?s something we?re just trying to get a handle on.?