The incredible shrinking schools

My high school alma mater may drop its Latin program next year. That’s not a huge deal to most people, I know, but if you think of it an indicator, it signals change in the rural school districts around Rochester: a significant drop in the population of young people in small towns.

There are fewer kids in rural schools. Batavia Daily News reporter Tom Rivers (and, in the name of full disclosure, my brother-in-law) describes the changes in a thorough report below, posted with his permission.

As you’ll see, Tom’s story focuses on sports and science programs and the effects smaller classes may have on what schools can offer. Schools such as Elba, Byron-Bergen, and Oakfield-Alabama might have to team up to offer certain classes and sports programs.

But I wonder about music. How can you maintain an instrumental music program in a district where there are less than fifty kids in a class?

Read Tom’s whole story (published January 29th) below:

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The downward spiral

School districts attempt to cope with fewer

By Tom Rivers

The hallways and classrooms are getting less
crowded in most local schools. In some cases, there are so few students for classes that districts are considering eliminating programs or teaming with neighboring districts to offer the classes.

In Albion, where enrollment has dropped nearly 10 percent or by 263 students in three years, the Latin program could be cut next school year. The district already eliminated 17 classes this year because they didn't meet Albion's minimum standard of 12 students per class.

Three districts — Byron-Bergen, Elba and Oakfield-Alabama — are discussing sharing academic, athletic and staff development programs as a way to reduce costs and provide opportunities for students and staff. The districts have formed an informal "Route 262 Corridor Initiative" to look at ways to share programs.
The three districts all have shed at least 6 percent of their enrollments in the past three years. Some other local districts have shrunk even more, as small elementary classes move into the school buildings and larger graduating classes move out.

"It's definitely going to be a challenge for school districts in how they're going to manage the enrollment dip," said Greg Geer, superintendent at Byron-Bergen Central School, where the enrollment has dropped 6.0 percent or by 76 students since 2004-05, according to the state Education Department.

He knows many in the community probably believe the district should reduce teachers and staff at the same rate the enrollment declines. But Geer cautioned against that.

The shrinking enrollment allows the district to examine its staff resources and perhaps reallocate teachers in a more effective way to help students meet increasingly difficult standards for graduation.

"This is a more complicated problem than it looks on the surface," Geer said about enrollment and staffing levels. "The standards keep ratcheting up in order to get the kids to graduate. We're setting up our kids for a world that is changing fast with computers."

Pushing partnerships

Byron-Bergen next year expects to offer forensic science courses as electives. B-B is discussing with Elba an arrangement where its students could take the forensic class, while Elba's meteorology class could be opened to B-B students.

Byron-Bergen also offers soccer in the fall but doesn't have a football program. Elba has football, but no boys soccer. Geer said the districts are looking at allowing students to play at the neighboring school for some sports. Byron-Bergen already shares a teacher with another district. An art teacher splits time at B-B and Mount Morris. The teacher works for the Genesee Valley BOCES, which then contracts the service out to districts. Michael Glover, the BOCES superintendent, said he is discussing similar arrangements with other smaller districts for shared staff. Wyoming and Mount Morris also share a business administrator who is hired by BOCES.

"I think we've just scratched the surface," he said about staff-sharing agreements among districts.

Glover said the challenge for districts will be maintaining programs in the face of the declining enrollments. He said technology could bridge the gap, allowing students to take courses in one location while they are taught off-site at other schools. He also said students may take more college-level courses if their options are reduced in high schools.

Joan Cole, Elba's superintendent, said the district already has formed a partnership with a neighboring district to provide services to students. Elba and Pembroke share the costs for occupational and physical therapists. Neither needs a full-time therapist, but Cole said it would be "almost next to impossible" to hire a therapist part-time. Both therapists are full-time, with the districts splitting the costs.

Elba also has joined a municipal cooperative for purchasing fuel and heating oil. That has allowed the district to get a better price, she said. Cole doesn't want to see shrinking school districts compromise programs for students. In Elba, the student enrollment has dropped 8.0 percent in three years or by 48 students.
She said the 22 superintendents in the Genesee Valley BOCES meet together monthly, brainstorming ways to maintain and boost student programs, without busting the districts' budgets.

"We all wear our separate school colors but we're all trying to do what's best for kids in the region," Cole said.

Demographic factors

She believes the downsizing at Kodak and other big companies in Rochester and Buffalo has led to a migration of some young families away from Elba, which is conveniently located between both cities. All of the districts have seen enrollments drop, and changing demographics are driving the decline. The 2000 U.S. Census data was a harbinger of the enrollment issues know confronting districts. The local counties all had big hits in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic in 2000. That age group, now eight years later, would be the prime parenting age for the current crop of students.

In Genesee County, the number of 18- to 34-year-olds dropped 23.5 percent or by 3,696 from 1990 to 2000. In Orleans County, the age group declined 16.4 percent or by 1,889 people, while in Wyoming the demographic shrunk by 18.3 percent or by 2,222.

Statewide enrollments are decreasing. In 2003-04, there were 2,804,969 students in New York public schools. That dropped 3.3 percent three years later to 2,715,068. In districts outside New York City, the enrollment declined 2.3 percent, from 1,777,874 to 1,736,652, during the three years.

In Batavia, the district has lost 5.7 of its student population the past three years or a drop of 150 students. Batavia two years ago, when the enrollment drop hit the elementary school, eliminated teaching positions in third, fourth and fifth grades, reducing those grades from nine to eight sections, meaning one less classroom per grade. The district also eliminated the gifted and talented program teacher, although more services for top students have been added, said Richard Stutzman, the district superintendent.

"We have to cut back to some degree," Stutzman said.

Albion is nearly the same size as Batavia and district officials said several programs are in jeopardy because of the declining enrollment. Besides the 17 classes cut this year, Latin is in imminent danger of being eliminated. School officials worry about the future of the agriculture and business programs as well.
Albion school officials said they owe it to taxpayers to not run classes with fewer than 12 students.

"We have to draw a line in the sand," said board member Dean Dibley at a recent meeting. "We have to be responsible."

The district is trying to recruit more middle school students for the Latin program. That could then feed the high school program and allow the district to keep Latin.
While all local districts have lost students, the severity varies, with Le Roy among the most stable districts with only a 2.7 percent loss, the lowest rate in Genesee County.

A new housing development off Quinlan Road has district officials optimistic the enrollment will at least hold steady in coming years. Cindy Neth, the district superintendent, also said families tend to stay in Le Roy, helping to prevent enrollment swings.

"I think families that come here, stay here," said Neth, herself a Le Roy graduate. "They decide the education is good and they don't want to leave. There's a lot of stability in the district."