The pitter-patter of little feet got a lot louder when Missoula's kindergarten classrooms opened this year.
In what could be called a "kiddo boom," the Missoula County Public Schools district has seen a dramatic rise in the number of enrolled kindergartners, at least by an initial and unofficial count.
"What was remarkable is that it wasn't just here," said David Rott, principal at Chief Charlo Elementary. "It was across the district."
Oh boy (and girl), was it ever.
A September count of kindergartners within MCPS put the total at 660 - more than 100 students above the 10-year average. Last year, by comparison, MCPS counted 529 enrolled kindergartners in the official total reported to the state.
This year's bump has led to five more kindergarten classes across the district - at Chief Charlo, Russell, Lewis and Clark, Franklin and Rattlesnake. And it has also led to four more full-time teachers in the K-5 ranks when factoring in the loss of a first-grade class at Chief Charlo.
Last spring, MCPS began seeing an inordinate number of parents registering kindergartners and so began preparing to find room and find teachers for the kids.
"The registration just started to explode right away," said Steve McHugh, director of human resources at MCPS. "Usually, you don't add kindergarten classrooms that quickly."
Rott saw it, too.
"Our classes started filling up almost immediately," he said. "Usually they trickle in, but not this year. We had an influx right off the bat."
One of the teachers MCPS hired is Kevin Cashman, who has a classroom of around 20 kindergartners at Chief Charlo.
"To be honest, I didn't know it would be this kind of a boom," said the teacher, who has taught at the private Sussex School but applied for his current position last spring. "I just made the choice to go to a public school, and it's been fantastic."
Every year, school districts have to predict their enrollment based on current figures and the registration of kindergartners. Big districts such as MCPS routinely make staffing changes based on those figures - shifting teachers to different grades or schools or hiring more paraeducators, for example.
The key component to those decisions is class size, as the district is forbidden from stuffing too many kids into one class or risks losing its accreditation.
"That's the dance we do on a pretty regular basis every year," said McHugh. "The sooner we can get a figure out there that's accurate, the easier it is for us to budget."
Rott is pleased to have more of the youngest students at his school.
"When we have more students coming in, that's a good thing," he said. "Increasing enrollment is never a bad thing."
It is, however, a budgetary challenge. The rule in school funding is because state money is tied to enrollment, money is always the last to arrive. So the district won't receive any additional funding for salaries until the next school year.
Why the big increase? Well, the kid count is too new and too abrupt to be able to call it anything other than a statistical anomaly, though district officials quietly wonder if the power went out for a prolonged amount of time five years ago.
Theirs is not to question why, however, but to make more space.
It's also too early to tell whether the kiddo boom at MCPS has echoes across the county.
By law, schools and counties don't have to have an official count for the state until the end of next week, said Erin Lipkind, Missoula County's superintendent of schools. She has no numbers to see if the MCPS figure is a mere fluke.
"I have not seen nor heard of that (in other schools)," she said. "I know that in our smallest schools, we haven't seen any significant type of increase."
Still, the enrollment boom is perplexing even to longtime teachers and administrators like McHugh.
Perplexing but good.
"It challenges the heck out of us, is what it does," he said. "But in the long run, we're happy about that, because it gives us opportunities to have more kids and more programs."
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.