Decade-old prediction comes true: BKW enrollment declines by 27%

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
A graph shows the declining enrollment over the last year at Berne-Knox-Westerlo, from 1,040 students in 2008 to 762 as of this September.

BERNE — The small size of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District can make even small numbers look like large percentages. But the district has become even smaller, with a 27-percent decrease in enrollment over the last decade.

On Nov. 19, the BKW School Board received an enrollment report from Superintendent Timothy Mundell with information on the last 10 years of enrollment in the district, as well as the number of students enrolled in special-education programs, enrolled in private or parochial schools, or homeschooled. The board was also given gender ratios and statistics on post-graduation plans.

In 2004, BKW commissioned a study by Cornell University that predicted a district-wide decline in enrollment over the next 10 years. Enrollment numbers have decreased steadily ever since. The study suggested that enrollment would drop to 792 by 2017, which was right near the mark as enrollment was at 797 last September, according to the district’s latest report.

BKW is not alone with declining enrollment.

“The drive behind declining enrollment is declining population,” said David Little, adding that in the Great Recession people lost their jobs and moved out of the country into suburban and urban areas. Little serves as both the director of the Rural Schools Association at Cornell University and the executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State.

However, Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s population has remained relatively flat over the last two decades, though the population has gradually gotten older.

For the last seven years in New York, 175,000 people have left the state — meanwhile New York City’s population has grown, Long Island has maintained a stable population, and upstate cities have had either grown or remained stable, said Little.

“I’ve had a phrase that I’ve been using … ,” he said. “We’re doing the hard work of staying.”

BKW numbers

In September 2008, BKW had 1,040 students enrolled in the district, with 104 seniors. By September 2018, the district had 762 students enrolled, with 51 seniors, though this may not include students in programs like Tech Valley High School — a program where participating schools can send two students each year. Last year, BKW had 78 graduates.

The drop in seniors at BKW could also be a concern because it appears that the number of students in a class often declines over the years till graduation. The 64 students who were in kindergarten in the fall of 2008 are now in 10th grade, but only 52 remain; this year’s kindergarten class has 52 students enrolled. Though there are some exceptions — last year’s graduating class of 78 had 77 enrolled in 2008 when they were in third grade. But the graduating classes, kindergarten classes, and total enrollment at BKW are all on a downward trend.

Data from the Cornell Program on Applied Demographics in cooperation with the New York State Center for Rural Schools show a similar if not more dramatic trend for enrollment at BKW.

Starting in 1993, the enrollment projections begin at 1,266 for the district and drop to 676 in 2027. But enrollment was also projected to be at 745 last year, when in fact it was at 797.

Similar rural districts, like Duanesburg’s, also show a projected decline, but a less steep one, dropping from 881 in 1993 to 703 in 2027. Neighboring suburban districts like Voorheesville and Guilderland show near flat projections.

In 1993, the BKW and Duanesburg school districts considered merging, though this was tabled in a matter of months. However, BKW had actually been experiencing growing enrollment at the time, and the merger was being considered due to needed space at Duanesburg and the potential for BKW to save money and expand its programs.

Last March, the board saw a presentation by G. Scott Hunter of the Capital Area School Development Association on projected enrollment in the district. Despite declining enrollment, he projected the trend leveling off in the coming years, but said that a decline in births in the school district could affect this.

Schooled elsewhere

The latest information from BKW also included private and parochial school enrollment dating back to 1998. The trend remains flat for enrollment outside of BKW but there was a decrease in the 2000s before increasing slightly in the 2010. Homeschooling numbers saw similar ups and downs from 2008 to 2018, but overall had an increasing trend.

For this school year, about 11 percent of the children that would be eligible to attend the public school instead attend private or parochial schools or are schooled at home.

The information also included the class of 2018’s post-graduation plans, with the majority — 33 of the 72 graduating students — planning to attend a two-year college; 23 students planned to attend a four-year college, and 12 were going into the workforce.

Solutions

Little said he had served as the school board president of the Brunswick (Brittonkill) Central School District 20 years ago. At that time, the poverty rate was around 3-percent, but upon visiting the school district last winter he had found it had increased to 28-percent.

“The people who stay in rural areas, they are more poverty-stricken,” he said.

At BKW, about 40 percent of the students get free or reduced-price lunches.

Little said the solution to declining enrollment is to offer economic development in rural areas, so that students who graduate do not leave these areas. To mitigate the problem, however, schools can look to new education models such as regional high schools with community-based elementary and middle schools.

This way, school districts do not lose their community center but benefit from a broader educational experience that is more often offered to suburban schools. Such models are already found in neighboring states like Massachusetts and Connecticut, he said. Another option is to have school campuses offer community resources like physical or mental health care, he said.

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