CAPITAL REGION — Combined public school enrollment for the seven-county Capital Region fell 3.5 percent this year, dropping below 130,000 total students for the first time in decades as the pandemic caused unprecedented disruptions in education.
School enrollments have been falling gradually since the mid-2000s, when the region topped 150,000 public school students, but the fall off this year was far steeper than previous years, when annual downturns in enrollment rarely reached 1 percent.
Enrollment in the fall increased in just six out of nearly 60 school districts in Schenectady, Saratoga, Albany, Montgomery, Fulton, Schoharie and Rensselaer counties, according to state Education Department enrollment data updated earlier this month.
The new state data gives the first look at how enrollments have changed in the midst of an upturned education system during the pandemic. School districts this year have offered students and families a maze of mixed learning options, with schools offering varying amounts of in-person instruction due to budget, staffing, facilities and countless other constraints.
While enrollment in the Capital Region has gradually declined since 2006 – after about 20 years of growth in school enrollment – the 3.5 percent decline marking the start of the 2020-2021 school year was more than three times the biggest single drop in the previous decade. Combined enrollments for public school students in prekindergarten through high school programs across the seven counties totaled 125,687 at the start of the year, down from 130,280 at the start of the 2019-2020 school year, according to state data. The current school year enrollment levels across the region are the lowest of any year in state education records dating to the mid-1970s.
School and district enrollments are a critical factor in formulas that determine state and federal funding levels, so districts could be managing the financial consequences of the lowered enrollments for years to come.
It’s not clear whether or how much the enrollment numbers will rebound next school year if in-person instruction fully resumes or even where the students have gone. The state’s count of homeschool and nonpublic school students by district have not yet been updated but, anecdotally, school leaders throughout the year have indicated homeschool numbers likely increased this school year.
The Schenectady City School District saw nearly 600 fewer students enroll at the start of the 2020-2021 school than the previous year – dropping from 9,698 to 9,100 students or down just over 6 percent. The Greater Amsterdam School District saw a 6.6 percent decline in enrollment – or a drop of over 250 students.
Shenendehowa, the largest district in the region this fall with over 9,400 students, saw a 1.3 percent decline in enrollment or just over 100 students. Saratoga Springs experienced an enrollment decline of 280 students, or nearly 4.5 percent. Niskayuna enrolled about 100 fewer students, a 2.2 percent decline.
When asked about enrollment declines in the context of long-term facilities planning earlier this winter, Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said at a recent board meeting that he expected students and families to return after schools emerge from the current crisis of the pandemic.
“I fully anticipate once we get on the other side of this crisis that people will come back,” Tangorra said, noting that live birth numbers in the district suggest the district should prepare to see an increased number of students enrolling in kindergarten in the next three to five years.
A small number of districts did see their numbers trend in the positive direction. Some small districts – Menands, OESJ and Edinburg – registered increases of a handful of students; Stillwater and Watervliet school districts, both with over 1,000 total students, saw slight increases in enrollment, and; North Colonie, with over 5,000 students, stood out as the only large district in the region to report an enrollment increase, albeit a small 0.3 percent one.
But some other small districts saw things go the other way: Fort Plain, a Montgomery County district, enrolled almost 100 fewer students this school than last, or a nearly 13 percent decline, the largest percentage enrollment drop in the region.
National reports and studies this year have also pointed to falling public school enrollment, particularly among students in the youngest grades. Chalkbeat New York, an online news outlet focused on New York City schools, on Wednesday reported the state’s largest district experienced a 4 percent drop in student enrollment at the start of the school year, shedding over 40,000 students, more enrollment loss than the previous 14 years combined.