NIAGARA FALLS -- Student enrollment in Niagara County's three city school districts continued to decline this year, dropping by a combined total of 443 children.
Meanwhile, five of the county's seven suburban and rural districts saw their populations increase by anywhere from one to 95 students.
The Niagara Falls City School District's student population fell by 228 students, dropping from 8,725 in 2003-04 to 8,497 this fall.
Lockport School District's enrollment sunk by 107 students, from 6,433 to 6,326. North Tonawanda City schools lost 108, down from 4,603 to 4,495.
The only other districts to lose student population were Barker Central and Royalton- Hartland, the county's most rural school systems. Barker lost 30 students, while Roy-Hart lost 53.
Lewiston-Porter made the greatest gains. Its enrollment climbed from 2,371 to 2,466, an increase of 95 students. Niagara-Wheatfield was second, with 58 more students.
Starpoint Central School District in Pendleton, a favorite location for new housing developments, saw a 48-student increase. The Wilson and Newfane school districts remained stable. Wilson has six more students this year than last, and Newfane gained one more student.
Officials from the various districts attributed the changes to everything from the poor economy to the desire to have new and larger homes in suburbs that sport quality schools.
Cynthia A. Bianco, deputy Niagara Falls school superintendent, said she does not know exactly why students left the district.
"We feel it is partly because of the poor economy," Bianco said. "We believe a lot of families move out of the area because of the lack of employment opportunities. These are people with young children. They have to have jobs to support their families."
Parochial schools also are suffering and losing students because of the poor economy, she said.
North Tonawanda Superintendent John George said smaller family size also contributes to falling enrollment in city districts, especially when you consider there is not much room in the cities available for the development of new homes. That also explains why some suburban districts have grown, he said.
The decline in North Tonawanda has been so steady over the past few years that the district closed a middle school and an elementary school during the last three years. Lowry Middle School was closed last June.
"We believe there will be a decline (in enrollment) for a couple more years and then it will level off for some time to come," George said.
While Niagara Falls enrollment has been dropping for years, there was an increase in the kindergarten population, Bianco said, a sign that things may be leveling off.
"Our population overall has gone down in the county, and our losses parallel that," Lockport Superintendent Bruce T. Fraser said. "We've been losing about 100 students a year."
Why? "We monitor the kids who leave. Half of them seem to go out of state and some go to the suburbs, places like Starpoint and Newfane. The people who are leaving tend to be young people of child-bearing age. When you lose young families, you lose their children and their potential," Fraser said.
He said the New York City-Long Island area is the only location in the state that shows population growth. "We also have people who move back here for the quality schools," he said, and noted the district's kindergarten population increased by 40 children this year.
Some districts have seen constant growth during the past few years.
Niagara-Wheatfield Superintendent Judith H. Howard attributes that to people leaving the cities for the suburbs and the great number of new homes built in Wheatfield each year.
"We have more housing starts here than anywhere else in the county, and we get the brunt of the outward migration from Tonawanda, North Tonawanda, Niagara Falls and the City of Buffalo. The cities are losing population, and it seems like everyone is coming here," Howard said. "I suspect that's because there is no place to build new homes in the cities."
She added that the higher number of students brings its own challenges. It costs more to educate many of the new children than the property taxes new residents end up paying, she said.
Because of the increase in students this year, Howard said, "We had to hire four more teachers (two elementary and two secondary) and set up two extra bus runs. The hallways are crowded, the cafeterias are crowded, and it's hard to fit all the buses in the parking lot" to pick up students and take them home.
"Errick Road Elementary School (in Wheatfield) is now at capacity. We had 665 students there last year. Now we have 700. If we get more students next year, we'll have to turn the art room into a classroom (to handle the overflow) and give students "art on a cart.' The art teachers will have to go from room to room to teach. . . . We may have to look at elementary redistricting and possibly assign some students who normally would have gone to Errick Road School to West Street Elementary School (in Sanborn)."
Lew-Port Superintendent Whitney K. Vantine said the district is seeing an influx of students from area parochial schools.
"A lot of students come to the high school after they graduate from eighth grade at a parochial school," Vantine said. "We like to believe they come here because we have an excellent school system. Also, we have a lot of new homes going up. People can move to the burbs and still have a connection to the city proper. Niagara Falls is close by. Buffalo is only 35 minutes. I think a lot of people like that."
Like Vantine, Starpoint Superintendent C. Douglas Whelan said he believes a combination of "quality schools which offer full-day kindergarten -- the whole ball of wax -- and an ample supply of new homes along with easy access to major highways" are major reasons why Starpoint is transitioning from a rural to a suburban school district.
As for Starpoint's future?
"There's no question in my mind, we are going to see a steady increase in enrollment," said Acting Superintendent Douglas J. Regan, the district's Intermediate School principal. "What usually amounts to about 50 to 100 new students every year -- K-12 -- is going to continue for the foreseeable future, certainly for the next five to 10 years.
"I think we are closing in on becoming a suburban school district. People still refer to us as rural, but I think we are more of a rural-suburban district."
TABLE: Down in the city, up in the suburbs
Student enrollment in Niagara County's 10 public school districts, 2003-04 compared to 2004-05
City school districts 2003-04 2004-05 gain-loss
Niagara Falls 8,725 8,497 -228
Lockport 6,433 6,326 -107
North Tonawanda 4,603 4,495 -108
Sub-total 19,761 19,318 -443
Barker 1,114 1,084 -30
Lewiston-Porter 2,371 2,466 95
Newfane 2,266 2,267 1
Niagara-Wheatfield 3,997 4,055 58
Royalton-Hartland 1,666 1,613 -53
Starpoint 2,831 2,879 48
Wilson 1,484 1,490 6
Sub-total 15,729 15,854 125
TOTAL 35,490 35,172 -318