Thursday, December 31, 2015

What does the future hold for Niagara County schools?

Last week, the New York State Education Department updated a portion of its website that provides data regarding the make-up of student enrollment in individual school districts. The database breaks down everything by gender, race, disabilities, economics, and grade levels.

I took a long look at the information that applied to my school district, Royalton-Hartland. To me, the real take home from the report was the sharp decline in enrollment in my school system, which is, undoubtedly, an outcome of an aging local population and all of the young people moving out-of-area or out-of-state for greener pastures economically.

What specifically caught my attention was how, in recent years, the grade levels dropped off to numbers below 100 students.

For the 2014-2015 school year, the sixth through twelfth grades saw a peak enrollment of 128 and a low of 100, averaging out at 115 students per grade. Those are what you would consider relatively normal numbers for Roy-Hart, even harkening back to my 1993 graduation when there were over 120 people in my class.

It was the kindergarten through fifth numbers that I found concerning, as they were incredibly low by my school’s standards. The average for those six grades in the 2014-2015 school year was 90 students. Compared to sixth through twelfth, that's a drop of 25 students per class or 22%. That statistic is scary in itself, but it’s nothing compared to the concern elicited by the enrollment numbers for last year’s kindergarten class: 79 students.

We are not alone in that regard. I took a look at the numbers for a few other districts in Niagara County and, comparing apples to apples, found these disturbing declines in average class size for sixth through twelfth versus kindergarten through fifth in the 2014-2015 school year: Barker 23%, Wilson 21% and Newfane 12%.  

Obviously, student enrollment is on the decline not only at Roy-Hart, but across the county, and it's trending badly. We are, without a doubt, heading into an educational crisis. The thing is, we already experienced one (and we are, for most districts, still in one) as an outcome of the revenue losses of the Great Recession when sports and arts were cut, and superintendents, resources and even students were   shared across districts.

But, the crisis that we will be feeling over the next 5 to 15 years will far rival what we just experienced. As these kids age into high school and classes are smaller, untold numbers of teachers will lose their jobs, portions of facilities will be made obsolete, sports teams will have unsustainable rosters, and the way that we’ve been always been doing things will change dramatically. Students, parents and whole communities will have to change their expectations, even their identities. It will be a major culture change and, for many, an uncomfortable one.     

The writing is on the wall, so, in the coming years, don't scratch your head when school boards and school officials have to make different, interesting and difficult decisions concerning budgets, services and consolidation. As a matter of fact, right now is the time when you as a parent, taxpayer or concerned citizen should be preparing for that by asking yourself a question that school boards are already asking themselves: What will the future hold?

From the 04 January 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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