October 21, 2021

With fewer pupils, districts get more creative

By Lori Duffy Foster - The Rural Data Journalism Project

Bob Ellis/file photo

A student hangs in the air above the stone-covered Parker Elementary School playground in Cortland in 2014. In 2018, the Cortland Enlarged City School District voted to close the 50,000-square-foot Parker school. Virgil Elementary is also closing.

The Ripley Central School District, tucked away in a quiet corner of Western New York near the banks of Lake Erie, served more than 500 students in 1994.

Today, it has 137, a 73 percent loss. Some of that loss was intentional. Ripley pays to send its 100 high schoolers elsewhere so they will have more and better opportunities. It is a solution that is attracting attention in a state where enrollment in rural districts has declined steadily over the past 25 years.

“They are still our kids, so we are still invested in their successes,” said Paul McCutcheon, president of the Ripley school board. “It works like a regional high school probably would.”

Economics and natural change are to blame for a decrease in rural populations nationwide, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But in New York’s school districts, where two-thirds of nonfederal funding comes from local property taxes, the effect is particularly intense.

Even the brightest students in rural schools find it hard to compete for employment and college admissions with students from more populated areas, where advanced classes and electives are plentiful, experts say.

“The kind of educational programming and the breadth of curriculum you get is far too dependent on what the community itself can afford,” said David Little, executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State. “That’s exactly the opposite of the way it is in virtually every other state in the union. Most states pay two thirds the cost of education, and the one third that locality pays for is really kind of curriculum enhancement.”

Cortland declines, too


Most districts in the greater Cortland area have fewer kids in their classes than just a few years ago — a 9.4 percent enrollment drop since 2012, show state Department of Education data. McGraw Central School District has edged up 1.5 percent, but that’s more than offset by:


• An 11.5 percent drop in Cortland.
• A 9.4 percent decline in Homer.
• Drops of more than 14 percent in Tully, Cincinnatus and DeRuyter.
• A 15 percent drop in Dryden.


Districts report taking a number of steps to keep education strong as enrollment dwindles. They hire multi-certified teachers to broaden their course offerings and cope with enrollment fluctuations. They share services with other districts, and even try to add programs to draw families to the district.


They close schools — Cortland Enlarged City School District will close two elementary schools at the end of this academic year. Homer Central School District closed Hartnett Elementary in 2015.


Cincinnatus School District considered merging with McGraw several years back, said Cincinnatus Superintendent Steve Hubbard, but it was a reluctant conversation — school district residents often don’t want to lose that sense of identity.


Consolidating isn’t always the right answer, research suggests. A 2011 study by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder found a century of consolidation has already produced the greatest benefits that will be seen.


Students benefit from small class sizes and larger districts would benefit from de-consolidation, the data show.


Fewer students, less revenue


When economies decline, so does property tax revenue. Fewer students and less local money means fewer opportunities. While their peers in urban and suburban school districts can choose from full menus of advanced placement, honors and college courses, many rural school districts can offer only a few.


Foreign language courses are often limited to one or two choices. Classes like dance, theater and photography are nearly unheard of. The limited options can make students less appealing to colleges and universities, Little said. His own son was rejected by his dream college because his high school did not offer the electives the college sought.


“It is kind of this downward spiral that we are only now economically starting to get out of,” Little said. “And until the state recognizes that these communities have a burden that’s far too dramatic for them to overcome on their own and the state agrees to alter the way that it funds public education, we won’t stop the spiral.”


The state Education Department declined interview requests, instead issuing a statement that says it is committed to ensuring all students thrive and succeed. The state received $1.6 billion in federal funds in 2018 under the Every Student Succeeds Act to develop such strategies. Of that money, $80 million is earmarked for improvements and programs in the state’s lowest-performing districts, which includes rural schools.


“Above all, our ESSA plan emphasizes the importance of fostering equity in education for all of New York’s students. And one of the most important ways we do this by incentivizing districts to provide opportunities to all high school students to engage in advanced coursework that is often unavailable in smaller, rural school districts,” the statement reads.


Little said the state’s plans for the federal grants give him hope, but he noted that New York City, as a highneeds district, will likely get half of the $80 million designated for program improvements, leaving only $40 million for the 320 rural districts.


“It’s not a panacea,” Little said. “It’s an indication that they recognize the need and are willing to begin to target resources for it. So, we are happy about that, but I hope that they don’t think it fixes the problem.”


Changing the formula


Like Little, many experts agree the long-term solution is to change the way New York’s public schools are funded. In the meantime, rural communities are getting creative. They are experimenting with regional high schools, community school districts and distance learning programs to offer students more options. They are working with local colleges and businesses.


They are evolving, and Ripley has taken the lead.


“We had reached a point where we couldn’t sustain what we needed to for a high school in terms of giving students educational options,” McCutcheon said. “We had the bare necessities, but it was really difficult to have any kind of electives programs because we didn’t have enough student body and enough tax base really to have a successful high school program.”


In 2013, Ripley eliminated its high school classes and began paying tuition for its students to attend nearby Chautauqua Lake Central High School. Its students now have access to college courses, electives such as Mandarin Chinese and television production, and a variety of STEM classes. The two districts share administrative services, too, such as a transportation supervisor and a building manager.


Despite the enrollment loss, Ripley’s halls are far from empty. To fill the void, Ripley leases office space to the town. The district also opened its building to the community, housing a food pantry and maintaining a fitness center that is free to residents.


“We are always keeping our ear to the ground to see what is out there for opportunities,” McCutcheon said.


The USDA’s Department of Economic Research reports two major forces behind rural population decline. The economy is one factor. Jobs are harder to find in rural areas, making urban and suburban areas more attractive, especially to recent college graduates.


The second reason is natural change. Elderly residents are dying at typical rates, but young people are having fewer babies. Recent statistics show slight increases in natural change in the past two years, offering some hope that losses will slow down.


Little said New York’s rural districts have been particularly hard hit in the past seven years. He believes the state’s high taxes are not only driving people out of rural areas but out of the state.


“If I come out of college, and I am in a rural area, I not only have very few economic opportunities within a rural area to come back home to, but I also have to be willing, in addition to my student loans, to accept higher taxes and the higher debt load that will ensure that my taxes are higher going into the future,” he said.


Bob Ellis/file photo

Cortland Standard file photo of Truxton Academy Charter School.

Adapt and overcome


Little’s organization is lobbying for an overhaul in the state funding system, but that will not help today’s students. So, districts are exploring and implementing short-term solutions.


Mergers, once a popular answer to the problem, have mostly failed. Bob Lowry, deputy director of the state’s Council of School Superintendents, says higher taxes for the smaller districts in proposed mergers and loss of identity for both districts are factors.


However, regional high schools, community schools and distance learning programs are gaining popularity.


The concept of regional high schools has been tossed around for years, but the state has done little to promote it, Lowry said. Under a regional high school system, participating districts would retain their elementary and middle schools, but consolidate the high schools supported by all the involved districts.


Such systems are popular in other states and have been successful in parts of Long Island, Little said.


“It really has the opportunity to transform rural New York. The ideal of regional high schools is very much the forefront of what I think needs to be done for our rural schools,” he said.


The concept is similar to that of the state’s Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which provides shared educational services and programs to school districts, mostly in special education, and career and technical education.


Regional schools?


Ripley’s solution differs from the regional high school concept in that district residents have no representation on the Chautauqua Lake school board. The district pays nearly $8,000 per student each year, less for students who attend BOCES half time and nothing for those who attend BOCES full time. Ripley has no official say in class offerings, policy decisions or other issues.


It is not practical for every district to tuition-out all its students, but the state’s teachers union has traditionally opposed creating regional high schools, Lowry said, fearing merged high schools will lead to job losses.


“We’ve already had the loss of jobs,” Lowry said. “Now we are trying to save jobs and expand the curriculum. We need every teacher we can get.”


Matthew Hamilton, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, declined to comment specifically on the union’s position on regional schools.


Don Carlisto, dean of students for Saranac Lake’s middle school, sits on the NYSUT board of directors and is president of the Saranac Lake chapter. He said mergers and regional schools can succeed when all parties work together to do what is best for kids, teachers and residents, such as a recent merger of the Elizabethtown-Lewis and Westport central districts.


“I think that we would be doing a disservice if we just sort of had this reflexive kind of knee-jerk reaction that the teachers union are obstructionists,” Carlisto said. “There are always going to be obstructionists. There are plenty of examples that I can cite where teachers unions are at the table with communities sort of moving issues forward.”


Community schools, too


Saranac Lake’s enrollment has dropped almost 35 percent since 1994, forcing the closure of all but one elementary school. The district is already the state’s largest at more than 600 square miles. Some students sit on buses for more than an hour each way. Merging with another district would be impractical.


Saranac Lake has instead adopted the community schools concept, Carlisto said. Community schools try to stave off migration by making rural life more appealing and more feasible. Schools become community centers, offering everything from medical services to day care to wellness centers.


“The community schools model basically says, let’s make the school the hub of the community and house the services that kids need in the school building, where we have them for eight hours a day instead of making them travel to Glens Falls for a dentist appointment because that is the only place that they’ll be able to have their Medicaid accepted,” Carlisto said. “We are trying to bring the services that they need into the school because, ultimately, if you are able to provide the resources and have a student be made whole, it leads to better educational outcomes.”


The concept originated in McDowell County, West Virginia, one of the poorest counties in the nation.


In 2011, the local teachers union led the launch of Reconnecting McDowell to improve educational outcomes by addressing poverty. The effort has evolved into a partnership among Fortune 500 corporations and labor unions; nonprofits and agencies; parents and pastors; school personnel and students, and residents, according to a press release from the American Federation of Teachers.


The effort has seen graduation rates increase from 74 percent in 2010-11 to 88 percent in 2015-16, and drop-out rates decrease from 4.5 percent to 1.6 percent, the union says. Test scores increased and the number of students attending college jumped to 40.3 percent from 24.6 percent.


This spring, Reconnect McDowell will break ground on an apartment complex with amenities designed to attract new teachers and young professionals.


A larger role


In Massena, the possible closure of an Alcoa plant, the area’s biggest employer, led in 2015 to the creation of The People Project, an initiative of the Massena Federation of Teachers. The People Project focuses on economic development, health and wellness, and community schools. Its latest effort is the creation of a regional chamber of commerce.


“Teachers unions are engaging with communities in ways that maybe we haven’t before to defend the communities when their economic vitality is threatened,” Carlisto said. “I think ultimately that’s one of the strategies going forward to kind of start to mitigate and, hopefully, reverse this trend in declining involvement— enrollment.”


Though some state funding is available for community school initiatives, Saranac Lake gets none. The school board carved money out of the budget to hire a coordinator in July and formed an advisory council of parents who are traditionally unable to become involved in school issues.


The district is seeing results. The parents group noted that a bus driver shortage could be rectified by offering training and licensing locally, so unemployed residents can apply for the jobs. The district is working to provide free eye care and to coordinate services with the United Way.


“It is just a matter of getting all of the moving parts moving in the same direction … under the umbrella of the school district. That is not something that has happened before, and it is now starting to happen with the community schools model,” Carlisto said.


Adapting technology


Like many other rural school districts, Saranac Lake is also integrating distance learning to expand its offerings.


The teachers union has been careful to ensure that computers do not replace teachers. The district offers online classes only if students demand them and no current staff is qualified to teach them. A teacher or a teacher’s aide is always in the room to help students when they need it.


Little said distance learning is much more appealing than it was in the past.


It is more interactive, thanks to video conferencing, 3D printing, simulators and individualized learning. He compares the influence of digital technology to that of the school bus when it was first introduced. Though school buses have been transporting children since the days of the horse and carriage, they did not become widely popular until the 1940s, after new manufacturing standards made them safer.


“Before the school bus, we didn’t teach kids in an age-appropriate fashion and we didn’t even really teach them sequentially for education. They were in much smaller, if not one-room schools,” Little said. “The school bus allowed us to put enough kids of a certain age at one time in one place. To be able to teach them all like that. Well, the computer has changed time and place again.”


Still, Little said, efforts to create regional schools, community schools and distance learning programs are not enough. The state’s funding formula is unconstitutional in that it results in less competitive diplomas in districts with low property taxes, he said. Though education is not a fundamental right, the 14th Amendment requires equal access to schooling in states that provide it.


“As important as all of those other things are and as impactful as all of those things could be, actually getting an accurate and equitable state funding formula trumps them all,” Little said. “It is a really simple concept.