Declining Enrollment Blurs District Lines
It was during the traditional performance-night farewell circle, as students from two different schools tearfully told one another how they’d miss one another, that high school musical director Jennifer Trupo knew her shrinking district’s decision to accept cast and crew members from a neighboring town had been a good one.
“They couldn’t wait until the next year so they could be together again,” Trupo said, recalling the backstage scene before their production of “Legally Blonde” at Lyndonville High School last spring.
Whether things will be quite as cozy in the huddle of Maple Grove High and Chautauqua Lake’s new combined football team remains to be seen.
Either way, it’s a familiar story as declining enrollments have school districts looking outside of their own student ranks as a way to keep programs alive and thriving.
Demographics consultant Paul Seversky, who analyzes data for districts considering reorganizing services, cited declining birth rates as people wait longer to have children and have fewer once they start.
Cooperative teams have been around for years in places like the Dakotas, Iowa and Montana, but news reports show they are emerging in Vermont and elsewhere, said Bruce Howard of the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“In situations where schools do not have enough students to field an athletic team, this is a great alternative to simply dropping the programs,” he said.
The New York Public High School Athletic Association, to accommodate the trend, last month revised a regulation so small teams that combine are not automatically bumped into a more competitive division. Now, only a portion of a smaller school’s enrollment will count toward the total enrollment number that determines classification.
The state association has not tallied the number of combined teams in recent years but acknowledged at least 100 new teams for the 2012-13 school year alone, many of them in rural areas where population is scarcer. They ranged from single-sport mergers, like Ballston Spa and Stillwater in Alpine skiing, to full slates of sports. Roscoe and Downsville, near the Catskills, have a 12-sport agreement that includes teaming up in football, soccer, girls’ basketball, golf, baseball, softball and cross country.
East Aurora, outside Buffalo, and Bolton are among districts considering reaching out to neighboring districts for future seasons. Bolton, near the Adirondacks, is down to 202 students, from 250 in 2011.
In exchange for opening its stage to Medina High School, which did away with its drama program in budget cuts, Lyndonville High sent students to prop up Medina’s football and soccer teams and play in its championship marching band. Both districts near the Lake Ontario shore have for years watched their numbers dwindle.
“I’ll be up front, not everything was fantastic,” said Medina Superintendent Jeff Evoy, whose district’s varsity football team had been attracting little more than 20 players from within. “When you get a player from another school that’s coming in that’s getting more playing time or makes the team over a student from the home district, that can make for some hard feelings.”
But “it’s all about giving kids opportunities,” he said. His district has seen enrollment drop by half, to 1,700, since its 1975 peak, Evoy said. Lyndonville’s is at 655, down 150 from a decade ago.
In the state’s Southern Tier, the idea of combining high school football’s Maple Grove Red Dragons with the Chautauqua Lake Thunderbirds – teams that lined up against each other this past season – was lamented at public hearings, especially by the Red Dragon faithful worried about losing a generations-long tradition of winning, something less important for the newer Chautauqua Lake district.
Parents filled public meetings and newspaper comment sections, even as school officials spelled out their fears about lightweight freshmen practicing with bigger, experienced seniors for lack of having the players to fill a junior varsity and varsity squad. It’s a worry shared by football and hockey coaches around the state.
In the end, safety beat out nostalgia, head coach Curt Fischer said, and the districts agreed to combine students for at least next season.
In New York, school enrollments have been declining since 2001-02, according to the state Education Department, going from 3.3 million to about 3 million public and private school students now. What began with a decline in upstate urban districts has spread into suburban and rural districts, statistics show, forcing administrators to mothball buildings and explore not only team, but entire district, mergers. Only downstate suburban districts are showing a growth in numbers.
Lyndonville’s recent production of “Anything Goes” featured a male lead from Medina, but Lyndonville 15-year-old Tom Follman said he couldn’t argue with the decision, especially after being welcomed on Medina’s football team earlier in the school year.
“I’ve gone to them for a sport and now they’re coming here,” Follman said. “I see both sides of the fence.”
It was also hard to argue with the success of the newly combined Silver Creek-Forestville modified football team in the state’s Southern Tier during its first year this past fall. It went undefeated, something school officials hope will sell the community on plans to combine the upper-grade teams next year.
“The writing was on the wall,” Coach Sean Helmer said. “Our kids realized, we can get in a situation where we don’t have any football.”