School districts dealing with decreased enrollment

06 Jul 2016 | 12:01

    With student enrollment continuing to decline in West Milford and districts in neighboring Sussex County, many school districts are being faced with how to deal with less students.
    The West Milford School District, which has seen a 31 percent decrease in enrollment since the 2005-06 school year, is trying to recruit students to the high school instead of parochial or private high schools like Don Bosco Preparatory High School, DePaul Catholic High School, or Passaic County Technical Institute. To compete with other high school options, the district has increased its high school programs.
    “We’ve been working hard to increase our academic standing in terms of our offerings at the high school level,” said Director of Education Daniel Novak, “both in traditional academics with things like the Advanced Placement (AP) programs, or our comprehensive equity high school programs like auto shop and wood shop and those types of things.”
    And the district has seen some success. About nine students who were accepted into some of the surrounding parochial schools decided to stay in West Milford, according to Novak.

    What to do?

    In Sparta Township in Sussex County, within the past 10 years there has been a 38.67 percent decrease in the birth rate, according to a demographics study. The total school population is expected to continue decreasing by 696 students, or 20.09 percent in the next five years.
    For this reason, 16 positions will be cut as part of the 2016-17 budget. As far as enrollment decreasing enough to decide to close a school building, with six school buildings in Sparta, four of which are elementary schools, Assistant Superintendent Daniel Johnson said that at this point, closing a building would not be the best option for the district.
    “Closing a building would overload another building, forcing many things to occur, such as elective programs being taught in areas outside of classrooms, intervention services not having their own space, and larger class sizes,” Johnson said.
    However in Vernon Township, the district is seriously considering closing a school, with enrollment steadily decreasing over the past decade, a 39 percent decrease since the 2005-06 school year.
    Superintendent Art DiBenedetto has suggested the district close Cedar Mountain Primary School. While still maintaining ownership of the building, the district board office would move into that space.
    The Vernon district could also see some grade reconfiguration, with a goal of using the high school building more efficiently. According to the school website, the high school faces the potential of a 50 percent occupancy rate if enrollment rates continue.
    To try and combat this, the community college will be using classrooms in the high school building, and eighth-graders currently attending the Glen Meadow school could possibly move into the high school building as well, although many parents have voiced concern with the latter. The district will continue to talk about these options as the new school years begins, according to DiBenedetto.

    High school recruitment

    Currently, the Vernon district is trying to increase enrollment through outreach to students who plan to attend other schools in the area. Recently, the district held a seventh-grade orientation.
    “We wanted our seventh-graders to get a taste of our high school and it's new programs prior to the time when they are recruited by the tech school or Pope John or any other private or other public school,” DiBenedetto said.
    This competition is a good way to increase enrollment, DiBenedetto said. When the district first looked at the numbers, there were 282 Vernon students attending other schools in other places, but the district is beginning to see that number go down, with the goal to lessen that number more and more each year.

    Reasons for the decrease

    But why is enrollment decreasing? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population in Sussex County has decreased by 5,855 people from 2005 to 2014, a four percent decrease.
    Vernon Township saw the steepest drop, from 25,135 in 2005 to 22,799 in 2014, a decrease of 2,336 people.
    Johnson said that while he could not be certain as to the specifics of the Sparta enrollment decrease, he could speculate a few reasons.
    “We have been in an economic climate in which people cannot sell their homes for what they paid for or to make a profit as had happened prior to the recession,” Johnson said. “In this, ‘empty-nesters’ are not selling their homes and relocating. Additionally, in our current economy, many young adults leaving college cannot secure positions, and, often, they are living with their families longer.”
    In West Milford, Novak said that some of the West Milford lake communities were hard hit with the tax revaluation a few years ago, where some of the homeowners ended up getting double or triple taxes overnight when the lake front properties were assessed.
    Despite the overall decrease, Novak said that some of the schools have started to increase in enrollment, like the Upper Greenwood Lake Elementary School and Paradise Knoll School, as predicted by a 2010-2011 school closing study conducted by an outside company for the district.
    “Just looking at the economy and looking at all of the things they take into account at that point in time,” Novak said, “there was a prediction by this company that we were going to continue to see a dip in enrollment and then over the five year period, it was going to be trending back up again.”
    Novak said the reason for the increase at those two schools was that the neighborhoods near those schools were targeted toward new families and first time homebuyers, which would result in an eventual increase.
    As of right now, Novak said the district is not considering closing one of the six West Milford elementary schools, but if enrollment continues to decrease over the next five years, it would be something the district would need to look at.