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Buffalo schools enrollment, bucking the trend, is up

It’s no surprise that school enrollment is in the midst of a steady decline in districts across the Buffalo Niagara region, but there is at least one notable exception:

Buffalo’s public schools – where enrollment had plummeted for years – have seen an uptick.

The district’s nearly 6 percent rise in enrollment, while modest, is the largest gain of any school district in Erie and Niagara counties between 2010 and last year, according to figures from the state Education Department.

The bump in numbers is at least partly due to the influx of immigrants and refugees resettling in Buffalo, district officials said.

“We have more of an infusion of ‘New Americans’ coming into the city,” said Eric J. Rosser, associate superintendent for student support services, “and that has been increasing over the past several years.”

What’s happened in Buffalo, though, is in contrast to what’s going on in most districts across Erie and Niagara counties.

As a whole, the 38 public schools in the region saw a 4 percent drop in enrollment between 2010 and last year, down to more than 144,000 students. That’s a continuation from the prior decade, when enrollment slid by 13 percent.

School districts report their student numbers to the state in October, and projections indicate more of the same.

Which raises the question: Where are all the kids?

“The trend is downward,” said David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association. “In pretty much every region of the state, there’s a decrease in enrollment.”

The enrollment decreases are greater in some parts of the state than others, Albert said, with Western New York showing the largest drop in the last 10 years.

That really comes as no surprise, given the region’s decades-long population losses.

The number of children in Erie County from the ages of 5 to 17 actually increased by 9 percent in the 1990s, but that was offset by a 13 percent decrease in the 2000s, said Wende A. Mix, an associate professor of geography and planning at SUNY Buffalo State.

Niagara County showed similar patterns, she said.

By 2010, Erie and Niagara counties had almost half as many school-age children as they did in 1970, Mix said.

Besides Buffalo, there were some gains in the North Collins and Maryvale school districts, where enrollment has gone up by 4 percent since 2010. Niagara Falls, Amherst and Lackawanna also held their own.

Otherwise, most of the region’s school districts saw their numbers drop anywhere from 4 to 16 percent between 2010 and last year.

The largest decreases were in Barker, Springville and Newfane. Enrollment dropped by 12 percent in the Eden and Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school districts during that period.

The trends make for a perennial discussion for districts about whether there’s a need to consolidate, reconfigure and even close schools.

“The last 10 years, there has definitely been a decline, anywhere from 1 to 2 percent a year,” said Stephen A. Bovino, who retired recently as associate superintendent for human resources in Ken-Ton.

That district had more than 10,000 students and 23 schools in the 1970s, Bovino said. Last year, enrollment was roughly 6,800 students, and the district closed three schools, dropping the total number to nine.

“People are leaving; not having as many kids. Sometimes it’s cyclical,” Bovino said. “We’re just not seeing that big push of young families moving in where it’s making a significant dent in the enrollment.”
Lancaster was second only to Clarence as the region’s fastest-growing school district in the 2000s, but enrollment peaked in 2005 at roughly 6,300 students, the data shows.

“We have pockets of development that are going on, but in general, the population in the school district is going down,” said Marie S. Perini, assistant superintendent for curriculum.

“I think it’s just the Western New York area,” she said. “Our population is getting older.”

Lancaster still conducts a census every summer, while Ken-Ton and other districts do some type of projections to know what’s in store for the coming year and beyond.

In most cases, it’s more of the same.

“At this point, we really haven’t seen any indication that’s changing,” Bovino said, “but we’re watching very closely.”

While the region’s population appears to have stabilized in recent years, Mix pointed to falling birthrates as another component of the falling school enrollments.

The Williamsville Central Schools, for example, have noted the smaller classes at its elementary level, compared with those at its middle and high school.

“Births are a big factor,” Mix said, “and why those births are lower is because either women are putting off having children or they’re not having as many.”

Private schools are in the same boat.

Enrollment in nonpublic schools in Erie and Niagara counties went down by nearly 6 percent between 2010 and last year, state figures show.

The number of private schools also has been dwindling locally. In 2000, the state reported enrollment for 145 private schools in the Buffalo region; last year, there were 88.

The Buffalo Public Schools have managed to buck the trend, at least for the last few years.

Enrollment in Buffalo continued to dip during the early part of the decade, then picked up in the last three years for a net gain of nearly 1,800 students.

In fact, those gains still came at a time when enrollment at charter schools in Buffalo also rose – up by 12 percent from 2011 to 2015 among the 16 charter schools in the region, state figures show.

Buffalo attributed at least some of its gains to the immigrants and refugees who have resettled in the city in recent years.

As a result, the district has needed to make some changes, including turning Lafayette High School into an international school, creating a separate Newcomer Academy at Lafayette and adding staff at its Central Registration Center to better transition these students into the schools.

In July and August, Rosser said, the district enrolled 650 new English language learners, and he anticipates more on the way.


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