Declining Youth Population Prompts School District Changes
Enfield's Reorganization Considered Harbinger Of Statewide Shifts
By KIM VELSEY
July 24, 2011
ENFIELD —— Although there were popsicles and movies for the last day, the mood at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School was anything but jovial June 23. Teary students roamed halls made topsy-turvy by moving boxes, saying goodbye to the school that was closing not only for the summer, but for good.
Faced with a dwindling number of students — enrollment fell from 320 to 256 over the last few years, according to Principal Robert Fenton — Stowe was one of two elementary schools closed this year, during the first stage of a massive school reorganization prompted by Enfield's declining school-age population.
Not only will Enfield students be redistributed across seven rather than nine elementary schools, but in coming years the board of education also plans to consolidate the town's two high schools. The process, say officials and researchers, reflects the reality of Connecticut's changing demographics, providing a glimpse into the challenges that many school districts will confront in coming years.
The number of children has dropped in 70 percent of Connecticut cities and towns, according to a 2010 U.S. Census analysis by the Regional Plan Association, and children now make up only 23 percent of the state's total population. Besides Enfield, East Haven and Milford have undergone reorganizations to address falling student numbers.
The State Department of Education is looking at the demographic change as long-term, said acting Commissioner George Coleman, prompting the department to consider how state education policy, long built around the assumption that school populations will grow, can accommodate that shift.
"There is a great deal of planning and discussion on the local level regarding a tremendous amount of excess capacity in communities due to declining enrollment," said Coleman. "I doubt that in the next 10 years we will ever get back to where we were [population-wise] 10 years ago."
Many towns are looking at the reduced demand on schools in terms of enrolled students and infrastructure, and are looking at what is necessary to provide a quality education for their students, according to Coleman.
In Enfield, the number of children enrolled in public schools fell from 6,873 during the 1998-99 school year to 5,876 in 2010-11. A 2009 study estimated that the number would continue to drop for the next nine years.
"We've been losing about 200 students per year for the last few years, but kindergarten classes are way down," said Superintendent John Gallacher. "Basically, we're not getting an influx of younger families coming in."
Magnet and charter schools also accounted for some of the loss, he said, especially the Public Safety Academy, a Capitol Region Education Council school in Enfield.
Enfield's schools were designed to accommodate about 12,000 students, built on population projections from the 1960s and 1970s when three- and four-children families were the norm in town, according to Mayor Scott Kaupin.
"Although Enfield's population has stayed very stable — between 44,000 and 45,000 — we're an aging population," said Kaupin. "We needed to do something with our physical space."
According to board of education President Greg Stokes, the disappearance of federal stimulus money prompted the board to act sooner rather than later.
Stokes said that the consolidation will save about $1.1 million per year, starting this month. Three staff positions were eliminated, according to Stokes, and 15 vacancies — many of them teaching positions — were left unfilled. One principal retired and another was reassigned to an assistant principal position.
"It enabled us not to cut [programs]," he said, adding that it also evened out class sizes, which varied by as many as 14 students before the reorganization. The board plans to implement the high school consolidation in the fall of 2014. Besides saving money, the reorganization offers the opportunity to redesign the high school curriculum, Stokes added, making it more up-to-date and attractive to students considering charter and magnet schools.
The board had been receiving calls from a lot of other school districts in similar situations interested in reorganization, he said.
"We can grow and make it better in smaller surroundings," said Stokes. "If you're spending money on facilities you don't need then you're not doing well with that money."
The plan, he added, has been embraced by most, but not all, in the community.
"I'm not a big supporter of the reorganization," said Tina Leblanc, a mother of three and the former president of Stowe's Parent Teacher Organization and recording secretary, who came for goodbyes on the school's last day.
"I don't think they thought of the community. I'm so attached to this school. Everybody knows everybody," she said.
"It's sad," explained her daughter.
"That about sums it up," said Leblanc.
Leblanc said she also opposed the district's decision to divide the elementary schools into K-2 and 3-5 academies rather than keeping schools K-5 — putting an end to programs in which older students helped mentor younger ones as reading buddies, a loss also mourned by fourth-grade Stowe teacher Barbara Gokey.
"I'm hopeful that it wasn't just for the money," Gokey said of the reorganization, "that it was for quality education."
On Alcorn Elementary School's last day, Principal Deborah Berger and her staff exchanged hugs before she counted down to dismissal on the intercom. "OK, Hornets, this is it: the last day of the year. Are you ready?"
Berger said that the staff had been working to keep morale up, emphasizing new friends and new adventures.
"I think everyone has walked away feeling that it's going to be all right," she said. "It's just kind of the way things were going; demographics change, budgets are getting cut."
"I think that at this point people have come to grips with the grieving process," Berger said later. "We hope that most people, while sad, are looking at this in a positive way."
Alcorn student Keyondra Artis, 8, took in the end of the year with a mixture of regret and hope.
"A lot of kids were crying," she said. "I'm a little scared, but a lot of people are going to my school. I'll have friends."
Next year, Alcorn will host adult education and other town programs and Stowe will be leased to the Public Safety Academy until the academy can build a permanent home in town.
Councilwoman Cindy Mangini said that it was sad to see the schools close, but "it's not about the buildings, it's about delivering the educational product."
Mangini said that she viewed the population decline as a fluctuation, and believed that job growth, projects like the transit center and a good market for first-time home buyers would stabilize the population.
But Orlando Rodriguez, a senior policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, said that the number of children in the state is expected to decline through 2020, reflecting major social shifts, like people having smaller families later in life — a trend especially pronounced in the Northeast, where people are more highly educated.
"This is a long-term, socioeconomic issue, not some fluke," he said.
Rodriguez said that the situation necessitated policy changes, like allowing towns to reduce their education budgets when their student populations decreased — something state statutes do not currently allow, although unspent money can be turned over to the town, meaning that funds intended for education are not always used for education.
"The focus needs to shift on how much we spend per child on education," Rodriguez said.
Other future changes will likely involve school districts not only reorganizing their own schools, but sharing services like transportation, said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.
Education Commissioner Coleman said that he expects school districts to collaborate on special academies to compete with magnet and charter schools, trying to keep student funding in-district.
Coleman said that the department is looking at restructuring school construction funding, moving away from the system in which communities can "elect to build a new school anytime they want to and get a generous commitment from the state," to one emphasizing renovations. Opportunities for positive changes would be created, he said.
"I am certain that there will be a great deal more innovation in our schools as we move forward."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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