Enrollment decline continues at WCS

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Enrollment continues to decline within the Whitehall Central School District, reflecting what has become a countywide trend.

The New York State Education Department released its district report cards for the 2011-12 school year and the number of students who attended school in the district dropped for the seventh straight year.

There were 742 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade last year compared to 753 two years ago and 779 in 2009-10. The decline is even more pronounced the further back you look. In the past decade the district has lost 143 students, more than 16 percent of its student body and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“In 2002 we had around 1,000 kids,” Superintendent James Watson said. “To put it in the simplest of terms, in the last decade, decade-and-a-half, we’ve lost 25 percent of our population.”

The elementary school used to have four or five sections or classes per grade level. Now there are three classes at each grade level.

“If you do the math, we’ve lost 20 students and one teacher at each grade level,” Watson said.

Whitehall, however, is by no means unique. According to enrollment data dating back to the 2003-04 school year, every school in Washington County has seen its enrollment decline over the past decade.

During that school year, there were a total of 10,399 students enrolled in Washington County’s 11 school districts. Nine years later, that number has dropped to 8,839, a decline of 15 percent.

Fort Ann has seen 21 percent of its student body disappear, Granville 16.1 percent, Hartford 14.7 percent, Argyle 17 percent, and Salem 30 percent.

That decline has come despite the fact that area’s population has actually grown.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the total population of Washington County in 2000 was 61,042 people. By 2010, that number had increased to 63,165. Whitehall’s population has remained relatively stable during that time (4,035 in 2000; 4,042 in 2010).

That population, however, is aging. The median age of both Washington County and Whitehall residents in 2000 was 38 years old. By 2010, that number had increased to nearly 42 in the county and almost 41 in Whitehall.

Not surprisingly, the number of households with children under the age of 18 has also declined at both the county and local level.

“This isn’t a school-related issue. This is a geographical issue,” Watson said. “I can’t point to one specific reason other than we reside in an area with a difficult economy. There are not a lot of jobs in the area and people go where the jobs are.”

The percentage of students who are eligible for the federal government’s free and reduced lunch program lends credence to the idea that working class families are moving out of Whitehall.

In 2003-04, 39 percent of students at Whitehall were eligible for either free or reduced lunch. By the 2010-11 school year that number had climbed to 52 percent and last year it had skyrocketed all the way to 84 percent.

So how does declining enrollment manifest itself in the classroom?

For one, it affects the size of the faculty. During much of the past decade, even as enrollment was declining, the district operated with an instructional staff of, on average, 84 teachers and another 38 to 46 paraprofessionals or teacher aides per year.

But when the economy began to take a turn for the worse, the district’s ability to keep those teachers was compromised.

During the 2009-10 school year, the number of paraprofessionals dropped from 46 to 37. Last year the number was 27. Even the number of teachers has begun to decline, from 83 in 2010-11 to77 last year. And that happened despite the number of special need students remaining stable and the district’s academic performance on standardized tests ranking among the worst in the county.

Declining enrollment has also affected the depth of programs, Watson said.

For example, instead of ten flutists in the music program there may be only six or instead of 12 kids enrolled in physics there are four or five. And as enrollment in those programs declines, the likelihood of them being eliminated increases as officials are forced to make cuts that affect the fewest number of students. A few years ago, administrators eliminated French because there were only a handful of students interested in the subject.

Because the issue of declining enrollment is tied to local social and economic conditions the district’s hands are tied in terms of what they can do to stem the problem.

“It’s frustrating. There’s very little you can do about it. We’ve tried very hard to maintain as many educational programs as we can,” Watson said.

To that end, the district has placed an emphasis on hiring teachers who have dual certifications and can therefore teach more than one course.

The administration has also tried to share courses with other districts experiencing similar problems as well as increasing distance learning opportunities.

The good news is enrollment may be showing signs of leveling off. This year’s unofficial enrollment is 749 students and next year’s enrollment has been pegged at 760 students.

“I think we’re starting to stabilize, which would be nice because it gives us the ability to plan when we go through the budgeting process,” Watson said.

“Although there are fewer students, they are just as entitled to a quality education.”