Counting heads

With declining enrollment one of the major factors in the financial issues facing the Frontier Local school district in recent years, a 42 percent increase in kindergarten enrollment is a welcome development to Superintendent Bruce Kidder.

“I’m hoping that the economy’s picking up a little bit and people are moving into this area,” he said. “I’m hoping it’s stopping the decline.”

Frontier has seen the largest decline – more than 25 percent – in enrollment of any of the six public school districts in Washington County over the last decade. Only Wolf Creek Local Schools had less than a 13 percent drop from the 2002-03 school year to 2012-13, and that district’s numbers have fluctuated more during the 10-year period.

The drop is attributed to economic factors, like businesses leaving or reducing their workforces and residents following jobs out of the area; cultural shifts, including families having fewer children than they did decades ago; and changes in education, with home-schooling and online community schools becoming more popular.

Having 64 kindergartners start the school year after 45 seniors graduated is a positive sign to Kidder, just as welcoming 91 kindergartners after saying goodbye to 74 graduates pleases Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn.

“We have seen some young families move into our district lately, and we are very glad,” Dunn said in an email. “We believe we are doing good things in our schools, and increased enrollment is one of those data points that we look at for verification of that belief.”

But Dunn and Kidder admit that while they have their theories about what might be contributing to the increases, they don’t know for sure, nor can they say with certainty whether it’s a blip on the radar or the start of a long-term trend.

Charlotte Keim, president of the Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce, said she’s seen some indications more people are moving into the area. The chamber has sent out close to 100 relocation packets in response to requests from 27 different states. While most came from within Ohio, Keim said the chamber has also gotten inquiries from California, Texas, Pennsylvania and more.

“I’ve been noticing we’ve been putting a lot more (packets) together, and they’ve been disappearing fast,” she said.

The oil and gas boom may be one factor, although some people indicated they simply want to be closer to family, Keim said. And there are jobs to be found without leaving the area, she said, if people are willing to get the training and do the work.

“There are still a lot of blue-collar jobs around here,” Keim said. “But they have to be willing to work hard. And some of this is hard, physical labor.”

Belpre and Frontier are the only districts in the county to have more kindergartners starting this year than seniors graduating in the school year just completed.

Of course, those aren’t the only reasons school enrollment numbers change. Although the Marietta City school district has had fewer new kindergartners than graduating seniors over the last two years, Superintendent Harry Fleming said the district’s overall enrollment has remained steady since he returned to the district in 2011.

And having more seniors graduate than kindergartners start is the norm in the Wolf Creek Local district, yet they’ve seen slightly less than a 3 percent drop in total enrollment since 2002-03. Just 39 kindergartners entered the district in 1999-2000 as future members of the class of 2013, yet 69 graduated in May.

“One of the reasons, I think, is we set very stiff parameters at the lower grade level for open enrollment,” Wolf Creek Superintendent Bob Caldwell said.

The district tries to maintain a ratio of 15 students to a teacher in kindergarten through fifth grade, raising that to 20 for sixth grade and 25 in grades seven through 12.

“The older you get, the more apt you are to be accepted,” Caldwell said.

While those requirements limit the number of open enrollment requests that are granted, Caldwell said the small classes seem to be one reason families from outside the district want to send their children there.

One reason enrollment is followed closely is because it is tied to state funding. And while it may make sense to some that a district receives less money if it has fewer students, the reality isn’t that simple, said Fort Frye Local Schools Superintendent Stephanie Starcher.

“For example, I have 20 fewer students, but … the students are dispersed across grade levels and buildings,” she said.

So if that cost a district $100,000 in state funding, the response wouldn’t be as simple as eliminating a teaching position or cutting a bus route.

Since she just became superintendent this month, Starcher didn’t want to speculate on why Fort Frye’s enrollment is down this year – currently less than 1,000 students, although numbers are still being finalized at all districts.

Longtime Fort Frye Local Board of Education member David White said the downward trend concerns him.

“We’re becoming a small school district and we need to – I know it’s a bad word – consolidate with” Wolf Creek, he said. “I don’t know how we can ask the taxpayers to continue to operate small districts like this.”

Consolidation of the districts – whose high schools are a little more than a mile apart – has been discussed in the past, but there was little support in either community. That seems to remain true today.

“Personally and professionally, I am opposed to consolidation,” Caldwell said. “The geographics of the larger districts do not work.”

Starcher said the idea has not been discussed with her.