“Pick any building, and we can show you something that used to be a classroom and is now used differently,” Coblekskill-Richmondville Superintendent Carl Mummenthey said in a recent interview.
He meant it.
There’s a parent center at the elementary school and a literacy center used for intensive reading instruction in the higher grades. There are attendance and drop-out prevention counselors — a new job title for the district — at both of the district’s campuses. And the high school converted a science lab into a distance learning room, where students can video-conference with classes being taught at other schools and colleges across the state.
“Despite population loss, our kids deserve a competitive education,” Mummenthey said.
Since 2000, enrollment in Cobleskill-Richmondville schools has dropped 20 percent — sliding from more than 2,200 students in 2000 to 1,756 last fall — leaving school officials with more space to use in creative ways, while trying to maintain programs and class offerings.
At the high school, an old computer classroom was transformed into a bakery run by special-education students from around the region. A preschool classroom — with the tiny toilet still in place — is now used for the high school’s new alternative education program.
“We had spaces available, and we thought about how can we think out of the box and create these programs,” Principal Melissa Ausfeld said one recent morning, as she showed off the bakery. The space sits empty in the fall, when the special-education students run a small car-detailing business in a bus bay outside.
A longtime trending
School enrollment has moved in waves for decades, reflecting the “echos” of the baby-boom generation. Nationwide, the baby boomers caused enrollment to grow rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s, peaking in 1971 before declining every year through 1984, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In the fall of 1985, enrollment started to trend upward again, breaking through the 1971 high in the mid-1990s and continuing to grow into the 2000s, as millennials — the children of baby boomers — packed schools. By 2006, nationwide enrollment hit 55.3 million students.
The upward trend has leveled off in recent years, but is projected to hit nearly 58 million students by 2024, according to the NCES.
But millennials — now the largest generational cohort in the country and widely defined as those between the ages of 18 and 34 — have now graduated or left the K-12 school system.
“Millennials are basically aging out, and we are ending up with predominately Gen-Y, which is made up of the children of Gen-Xers, who themselves were a smaller generation,” said Dan Harp, a demographer with the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, which conducts school district enrollment studies.
In New York public schools, statewide enrollment topped out at more than 2.8 million students in 2000, before declining every year through 2013, when it settled slightly above 2.5 million. That was a nearly 11 percent drop from 2000, according to state Education Department data.
But for many districts, the declines are finally starting to level off. And in fewer places, enrollment is beginning to tick up, some education watchers have noticed.
“There was a tremendously steady decrease of population in a huge number of districts last decade; we are seeing that bottom out in most places. The worst of that decline is stopping and either will be flat or, in wealthy places, start to tick up,” said John Sipple, a Cornell professor who researches public school responses to demographic and population changes. “Given how much loss we have had, it will take a while to get back to where we were — if we ever get there.”
The trend has trickled down to local districts — sometimes in stark ways. Of 32 districts in the Capital Region, all but four — Schenectady, Amsterdam, Shenendehowa and Schuylerville — enrolled fewer students at the start of last school year than in the fall of 2000.
Sharon Springs and Galway each topped 30 percent declines, the highest in the region. Eighteen districts experienced enrollment declines of 10 percent or more.
Scotia-Glenville, Mohonasen and Schalmont school districts all lost greater than 16 percent of their enrollment since 2000. (That’s 1,562 fewer students among the three districts, just 241 students shy of Schalmont’s total enrollment last year.)
The four Scoharie County school districts — Schoharie, Cobleskill-Richmondville, Middleburgh and Sharon Springs — saw a combined 24 percent drop in enrollment since 2000. In the fall of 2000, nearly 4,900 students enrolled in a Schoharie County public school; by last year, that number had dropped to fewer than 3,700 students.
Rural districts experienced the most dramatic declines, as upstate communities have seen diminished economic opportunities for decades.
A possible rebound?
What happened at Shaker High School in Latham one night this past week was an outlier on the growth side of the equation. District officials in North Colonie said the district is starved for space, as a wave of new students floods the district’s earliest grades.
Projections put the increase at nearly 1,000 students in the coming decade and, to help accommodate the growth, district officials unveiled the latest iteration of plans for a capital project that will be put before district voters in December.
Total cost: $196.4 million.
The massive project touches every school in the district, with additions at the high school and junior high schools, which with the addition of the sixth-grade, will be converted into a middle school in the coming years.
The plans call for classroom renovations across the district and the creation of open collaborative spaces and “innovation centers.”
At the district’s shared high school and junior high campus, fields will be updated with artificial turf, tennis courts will be moved and new baseball and softball fields will be constructed.
“Many of our buildings are already at maximum capacity,” North Colonie Superintendent Joseph Corr said at Thursday’s meeting. “We simply need to add space to meet our enrollment needs.”
Statewide, enrollment declines appear to have leveled off in recent years, with enrollment ticking up slightly in the 2014-2015 school year.
Niskayuna’s early-September enrollment increased to 4,200 students last month — a 70-student increase from last year. The district also increased enrollment last fall, compared with the year before.
And the enrollment increases were concentrated in the district’s earliest grades, with almost 40 more kindergarten students than last fall and 76 more elementary school students.
Increases at the elementary level are key indicators of longer-term growth, as the larger classes move through the system, replacing smaller graduating classes. When Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. presented the “creeping up” enrollment to the school board last month, a board member asked how the district was doing on space at its elementary schools.
“Space is getting tight,” Tangorra said.
South Glens Falls schools have seen a slight enrollment increase in each of the past three years. South Colonie, Mechanicville and Ballston Spa school districts will all see slightly growing enrollments over the next five years, if the rising number of new kindergartners progresses as it has for the past five years, according to projections by the Cornell Program on Applied Demographics.
In Mohonasen schools, district officials in the spring budgeted for big increases in kindergarten classes, planning to add two new kindergarten sections. While kindergarten enrollment came in lower than expected, it still had about 15 more students than the previous year’s class.
“We are definitely trending higher than we have in the past,” Chris Ruberti, Mohonasen assistant superintendent for business, said over the summer. “The last three years, [overall enrollment] has leveled out, and then we would expect it to start going up.”
A long-range enrollment analysis conducted by the Capital District Regional Planning Commission in 2014 projects Mohonasen will top 3,000 students in 2018 and reach 3,300 students by 2023. (Actual enrollment has increased slower than the projections in the analysis.)
Reason to be skeptical
Similar planning commission analyses for other area districts paint an uncertain picture of enrollment trends. Ballston Spa enrollment was projected to drop from just over 4,120 students in 2015 to 4,050 students in 2017 before stabilizing, according to a planning commission report completed last year.
“This is a modest recalculation of previous projections and provides the first suggestion that enrollment declines may be stabilizing,” stated last year’s report.
Enrollment in Shenenedehowa schools grew through the 2000s, peaking in 2009 at around 9,850 students before steadily declining to around 9,750 students. A planning commission report from last school year predicts enrollment declines through 2020, with the number of students dropping to just over 9,400 students.
“The best I can say for any district I’m working on is they are going to a flat line,” said Harp, the Capital District Regional Planning Commission demographer. He has worked on reports for the Shenendehowa, Ballston Spa, Averill Park, East Greenbush school districts, among others.
“There’s a deep and wide valley for enrollment, as we head into the next era,” he added.
But just as many millennials started to reach childbearing age, the Great Recession hit, leading young people to delay marriage or start families. Between 2007 and 2012, birth rates for women in their 20s dropped 15 percent, according to researchers at the Urban Institute. Birthrates declined across ethnic cohorts and for both married and unmarried women.
The researchers, however, wrote that “it remains to be seen” if millennials only delayed having children during tough economic times and will have higher birth rates in their thirties “or if this generation will have fewer children than their older counterparts.”
“The question is when do millennials start having children,” Harp said. “The million-dollar question is how long does that last, and how sharp will the uptick be?”
And even if enrollment begins to grow in some suburban districts, rural districts continue to see gradual declines and aren’t expecting increases anytime soon.
Dave Little, executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York, said young adults find it hard to move or return to rural communities upstate because the kinds of jobs they are looking for still haven’t flourished in those areas.
“Even when they wouldn’t put it [raising families] off, they aren’t moving back to rural areas,” Little said of the millennial generation.
Gloversville schools are looking to reorganize the district’s structure partly in response to declining enrollment and tightening budgets. Options included consolidating elementary schools and creating a fifth- and sixth-grade “school within a school” at the district’s middle school.
Superintendent Mike Vanyo told residents at a meeting last school year that the reorganization could save the district $1 million, while creating grade-level configurations that would improve the district’s educational program.
Other options include leasing district space to BOCES or using it for an early childhood program in the future.
“You can view excess space as a problem, or you can view excess space as an opportunity,” said Sipple, the Cornell professor.
Back in Cobleskill-Richmondville schools, they try to err on the side of opportunity.
Prior to 2000, the district had to contract with the Capital Region BOCES to serve most all of its special education students. But as the district started to take on more and more of those services –- utilizing open space as overall enrollment declined year after year — it realized major annual savings in its special education program.
By opening the program to students from nearby districts — Middleburgh, Schoharie, Jefferson, Fort Plain and others — Cobleskill-Richmondville has also turned its special education program into a moneymaker, bringing in close to $1.3 million in tuition for non-resident students in the 2014-15 school year, according to a 2016 state comptroller’s report.
That report commended the district’s program and estimated it saved Cobleskill-Richmondville $1.7 million. It saved 13 other districts a combined $1.3 million by providing special education services in-house, rather than contracting with BOCES.
At the high school, special education students go through an “employment training in the school” program that teaches students basic life and work skills, giving them experience with food service, car cleaning and basic woodworking operations. In the winter, the students run the small bakery at the high school, taking orders from teachers and churning out a half dozen orders a day.
“They run it like a business,” Ausfeld said. “They take orders, they figure out what they need for ingredients, they measure them out, they deliver the bread and bills. It’s basic job functioning skills.”
A room once used as a preschool in the high school was recently converted to a home-base for students struggling with attendance and in need of help to catch up on class credits. The bathroom — with a tiny toilet — serves as a reminder of the classroom’s past life.
“Now, a lot of my students come in here and say, ‘I went to preschool here,’ ” said Danielle Hay, the district’s STRIVE coordinator, the alternative education program. “They remembered the room being a lot bigger, though.”
Andrew Pugliese contributed to this report.