Public school enrollment shows slowing decline
Although the 2008 census of Martha's Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) continues a trend of several years of declining enrollment, the rate at which the enrollment is declining annually slowed from 2.3 percent last year to 1.8 percent this year.
According to the October 1 MVPS enrollment census, there were 2,081 students attending town elementary schools and Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, a decline of 39 students from last year.
Elementary school enrollments remained fairly stable, adding eight students from 1,354 students last year to 1,362 this year. The regional high school population fell about six percent, dropping by 47 students, from 766 in 2007 - the first time in five years enrollment fell below 800 students - to 719 this year.
In a phone call a few weeks ago, Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School director Bob Moore said that at 179 students, enrollment is at an all-time high since the school opened in 1996 . Funding for the charter school is capped at nine percent of each Island school district's budget, which allows a certain number of students from each town.
MVPS superintendent James Weiss said yesterday that the latest census figures track New England School Development Council enrollment projections. "We're looking at these enrollment numbers carefully - it is what we expected this year," he said. "The elementary school numbers are relatively stable, and the high school has lost some students."
Among Martha's Vineyard's elementary schools, the Tisbury and West Tisbury schools showed a slight enrollment increase, nine students each. Enrollment at the other schools fell only slightly, by one student in Oak Bluffs, three in Chilmark, and six in Edgartown.
The three towns showing the largest percentage declines in students attending the regional high school are Chilmark, Tisbury, and West Tisbury. The number of students from Tisbury decreased from 186 in 2007 to 170 in 2008. Chilmark dropped from 33 in 2007 to 27 in 2008, and West Tisbury from 130 in 2007 to 109 in 2008. Edgartown was the only town showing an increase of students at the high school, from 182 in 2007 to 191 this year.
Declining numbers may affect school budgets in terms of staff, class sizes, and curriculum, Mr. Weiss said. In reference to Martha's Vineyard Regional High School principal Steve Nixon, Mr. Weiss said, "Steve's at a number where it's probably realistic to look at reductions in staffing - when you get to a drop in numbers of about 100, clearly that's something we have to look at, taking into consideration all the issues."
At a meeting of the regional high school committee Monday, Mr. Nixon described the balancing act that goes on in trying to determine the right number of teachers and staff. "Once enrollment numbers go into the six-hundreds, there will be a classroom effect," he said.
However, new unfunded state requirements figure into the mix. Starting this year, under new Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) requirements, schools must offer extra academic help to grade 10 students who receive a "needs improvement" score on MCAS exams, to attempt to bring those students up to the level of "proficient" by the time they graduate.
That process involves assessing the students, building an educational plan for them, providing instruction, and reassessing them to determine if they have made improvement.
Consequently, Mr. Nixon said, it will be difficult to anticipate how many students will require extra help in a given subject area. And, school target scores go up each year, which means that the number of students who do not achieve proficiency scores is likely to grow.
"That will have a significant impact on this school, to have to reconcile enrollment with that mandate," said school committee member Leslie Baynes. "So we could get to under 600 kids, but in order to manage state mandates, we may not see a big reduction in the budget."
In terms of programs, Mr. Weiss said it is important to look not only at the class size numbers, but also what a particular course represents to the overall program.
While it might not be prudent to offer a first-year level class with just 10 students in it, an honors section class with small numbers is a different matter, he said.
At the regional high school, Mr. Weiss said Mr. Nixon and his administrative cabinet, which includes the assistant principals and various department heads, will look at the census numbers and work with the school advisory council in addressing staffing, class size, and curriculum issues, which ultimately are dealt with by the school committee.