Schools anticipate a bumper crop of kindergartners
Several Island public school principals expect a bumper crop of kindergartners this fall. Based on spring registrations, enrollment is up by 21 percent overall compared to last year's October 1 census.
"We are experiencing a small increase in kindergarten enrollment almost Island-wide; however, we won't have final numbers until September," superintendent of schools James Weiss confirmed in a recent phone call.
Spring registration numbers from elementary school principals show an increase from 126 kindergartners in the 2009-10 school year to 153 next year.
Among the Island's five elementary schools, so far Chilmark, Oak Bluffs, and West Tisbury expect the biggest increases.
At Chilmark School 12 kindergartners were enrolled for the 2010-11 school year, up by 50 percent from 8 students last year, by late June.
"That's big for us; that makes 20 right now in our combined kindergarten-first grade class," Chilmark head of school Susan Stevens said, compared to 15 last year.
Oak Bluffs School's kindergarten enrollment increased by 8 students, from 35 last year to 43, up about 23 percent. West Tisbury School has 30 kindergartners enrolled, compared to 21 last year, an increase of about 43 percent. Edgartown School's kindergarten enrollment is 35, compared to 30 last year, an increase of about 16 percent.
Tisbury School's enrollment of 33 kindergartners was only up by one from last year's total of 32 as of late June. However, principal Richie Smith said, "This is a high number for this time of year, as we usually get a few other registrations over the summer. Also, this number reflects no school choice program children."
The Martha's Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) school choice policy also has an effect on each school's planning. The choice policy allows children from one town to attend a school in another, if space is available. Principals, with the advice of school advisory councils and staff, determine which classes have available space for the upcoming year. When the number of applicants exceeds spaces, there's a lottery. The deadline for school choice applications was June 15 and principals had to make decisions in late July.
With so many variables, administrators know spring kindergarten enrollment numbers are fluid.
"We do have information and projections, but what happens to us about every year is a bunch of children show up in September for kindergarten," Mr. Weiss said. "And they haven't been in preschool, they haven't been on the Island, they haven't been registered, and they literally just show up. So, kindergarten enrollment is a difficult determination to make."
An educated guess
In the past, early learning coordinator Ann Palches, a member of the superintendent's staff, helped principals estimate kindergarten enrollment based on the numbers of children she saw while visiting Island preschool and daycare programs throughout the year. Although Ms. Palches does not run any of the programs, she visits most of them, following on requests for evaluations or screenings prior to children entering kindergarten.
However, preschool and childcare numbers have become less reliable, Ms. Palches said in a recent phone call.
"It's getting harder and harder to predict, because more and more kids either are moving here or are not in preschools," Ms. Palches explained. "It's really variable, and tricky to trend."
In the last two or three years, state funding sources that helped families pay for childcare have been cut. As a result, enrollments in preschools have dropped, Ms. Palches said.
"It used to be my rough estimate for years and years, until the last couple of years, that about 80 percent of children entering kindergarten had been in some sort of care outside the home, so they had some preschool or childcare group experience, either in family childcare or a center-based program," Ms. Palches said. "And that's probably not the case anymore. I think the number may be down to about 60 percent."
At Oak Bluffs School, for example, based on preschool and daycare numbers over the past several years, former principal Laury Binney said he had expected kindergarten enrollment next year to be in the low thirties. And with that number in mind, school leaders wrestled last fall and over early winter with the decision about whether to cut back from three kindergarten classes to two next year.
"And then suddenly, I got to registration this spring, and I looked and said, 'Forty-three? Where did they come from?'" Mr. Binney recalled in a phone call with The Times several weeks ago.
The influx in Oak Bluffs School kindergartners, as well as the likelihood of additional registrations and several school choice requests, confirmed that the decision to go with three kindergarten classes was the right one, Mr. Binney said.
"Since kindergarten classes tend to grow over time, we're probably projecting close to 15 in a class, and that's the number we like," he added.
Student numbers and school dollars
One of the drawbacks of enrollment increases for school administrators is that budgets are set and staffing determined months before a new school year starts. As a result, although enrollment projections help somewhat in planning, principals must adopt a "wait and see" approach and deal with the impacts of enrollment fluctuations once final numbers are known.
"Since we won't know until September, by then we have to deal with perhaps larger classes," Mr. Weiss said.
Does the teacher union's contract, which is presently under negotiation, limit class size?
"Individual school committees set class size targets, and they might set different ones for different grades," Mr. Weiss explained. "In the teachers' contract there are some limits, but they are insignificant in the sense that the numbers specified are large, which we rarely get to, and it doesn't say that you can't have classes that are larger. All it says is that if you reach that point, there has to be a discussion about what you're going to do."
In addition to class size, administrators must deal with other unknowns, such as how many kindergartners might require additional services such as English language instruction, for example. To get a jump on that, English Language Learners director Deb Hart screens children as soon as possible at the beginning of the school year, Ms. Palches said.
To get a sense of possible long-term enrollment trends, the Martha's Vineyard Public Schools receive enrollment projections updated annually from the New England School Development Council (NESDEC).
After several years of declining enrollment in Island schools, NESDEC projections released in January forecast an increase of about 321 students, or about 13.7 percent, in grades K-12 over the next 10 years.
The NESDEC enrollment projection for the 2010-11 school year is 193 kindergartners. The report forecast enrollments in grades K-8 would increase by about nine students annually over the next 10 years in Oak Bluffs School, three in Edgartown School, and four in Tisbury School. The report also predicted that K-5 enrollments in Chilmark School would remain "level" and K-8 enrollments remain "steady" at West Tisbury School.
NESDEC updates Island school enrollment projections using a method called the cohort survival technique, modified with additional information provided by Mr. Weiss's office, including the number of births to residents, housing starts, and the October 1 school census.
The two factors that will have the greatest effect on future school enrollments are an increase in the number of births and a decrease in people moving to Martha's Vineyard, according to an analysis included in the NESDEC report by demographic specialist Donald G. Kennedy.
It will be interesting to see how close the NESDEC estimate of 212 births matches the actual number of Island-born babies in 2010, which already is shaping up to be an exceptional year.
As The Times reported in a news brief published on June 17, "Hospital prepares for baby bump in July," Martha's Vineyard Hospital anticipated a summer surge in the birthrate, with 29 babies due last month. The hospital averages about 150 births annually. Three years ago it hit a high of 180.