More Competition For Fewer Students

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By: Brian Kehrl
Published: 05/18/12

 The changing demographics on Cape Cod present a challenge in planning for education needs, Cape Cod Collaborative Executive Director Paul Hilton told a group gathered Monday afternoon to discuss the future of education at the SmarterCape Summit.

After decades of exponential growth, the Cape’s school population peaked in 1999 and has dropped 22 percent since, according to data presented by Mr. Hilton and gathered from US Census, county, and state sources.

In the late 1990s, when the school population was 36,000, districts were expecting the Cape’s school population to grow 5 percent per year, he said.

But now, with 28,172 students, enrollment this year in public schools on Cape Cod has fallen to below 1988 levels.

Looking out to the future, based on projections from birth rates and preschool-age children, public school enrollment is expected to drop another 25 percent by the time today’s babies are in high school, Mr. Hilton said.

The declining school enrollment is connected to larger demographic trends on the Cape, where population growth has leveled off or declined over the past decade, more senior citizens have moved in, and young families have moved out, he said. The median age for much of the outer Cape, for example, is older than 52, compared to 39 for the entire state.

Mr. Hilton said he has met with school administrators and school committee members from across the region to discuss what is happening with demographics and student population.

He offered little insight into how districts might respond to the change, but he emphasized that it creates tremendous challenges in planning for budgets and infrastructure. For example, he said districts are wondering whether to close buildings in response to the loss of students. But what if the trends reverse again, he said.

“We need to do some real planning regarding these impacts,” he said.

At the same time as school enrollment has declined, public school districts have also begun to face more competition.
There are now 2,000 students enrolled in 15 private schools on the Cape, ranging in size from the Bayberry Christian Academy in Osterville, where just seven students are enrolled, to Cape Cod Academy, with 337 students.

Districts across the Cape have recently adopted school choice, allowing students to chose between towns and creating more competition among the public school systems themselves. Students leaving their home school districts under school choice have nearly tripled over the past decade, from 346 to 1,017.

Some districts have gained students from school choice, while others have lost hundreds. In Fiscal Year 2012 Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District, for example, saw 324 students leave under the program and only 78 come in, according to data presented by Mr. Hilton. Chatham, by contrast, saw 203 students come in and 72 leave.

Barnstable, Falmouth, and Sandwich all either gained a few students or came out a wash, according to Mr. Hilton. Mashpee lost two dozen students, and Bourne lost 10.

The two independent charter high schools in the region, Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in Harwich and Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis, have also created a new form of competition for the public school districts. Both are in the process of completing significant expansions.

Barnstable, D-Y, and Sandwich all saw more than 100 students leave for charter schools.

While Mr. Hilton offered little commentary on how districts should respond to the changes, a concept paper prepared for the summit emphasized the importance of maintaining quality public schools in attracting a skilled workforce.

“If we don’t start changing the Cape’s demographic trends, we will not be able to encourage additional investment in educational resources/institutions/assets at K-12 or higher education, in order to make the Cape an Educational Destination. We believe that the local business community, local government entities, and local educational institutions need to come together to begin to collaboratively recruit working age families (with children) to come live on Cape Cod,” according to the draft concept paper.

The document, which was prepared over the past year by a group first formed at the 2011 SmarterCape Summit, also recommended extending hours at schools and community centers to allow access to digital technology and pursuing “smarter education” models that can break down geographic barriers.

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