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Schools open, but where are the kids? Enrollment continues to slide in Buffalo Niagara

Where did all the kids go?

It’s not so noticeable among the hordes you’ll see heading back to school this week, but enrollment at public schools across Erie and Niagara counties has declined by 8% over the past decade, according to figures from the State Education Department.

That’s more than 12,000 fewer students.

In fact, an analysis conducted by the Empire Center for Public Policy last fall showed that enrollment in New York’s public schools is at its lowest levels since the early 1990s.

This school year will be no different.

“It’s more of the same – at a slightly higher pace,” said E.J. McMahon, research director at the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative government watchdog group based in Albany.

Public school enrollment in New York hit an all-time high in the early 1970s, took a nosedive in the late 1970s and '80s during the post-Baby Boomer era, then rebounded through the 1990s with the Millennial Generation, McMahon explained.

By 2000, enrollment had peaked – but it has dropped every year since, he said. In a few more years, McMahon projects that enrollment could fall to levels not seen since the late 1950s.

So, those difficult conversations about closing schools are far from over.

"You're going to see more of those controversies," McMahon said.

Declining enrollment is no surprise given the underlying demographic trends, like upstate’s shrinking population, the out-migration of young adults that occurred for years, young people marrying later in life, and falling birth rates.

But it’s still noteworthy, McMahon said, because the discussion adds some perspective to the yearly debate over school funding.

“We continue to hear pressure for more, more, more – but enrollment is going down, down, down,” McMahon said.

“The drop in enrollment trend needs to be front and center in every school discussion,” McMahon said. “You can’t ignore it.”

It’s true student enrollment has been on the decline, but look a little closer and you’ll also notice the growth in the number of “high-needs” students, said Michael Borges, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials of New York.

“Those are students who are English language learners, students with special needs, students who are in poverty,” Borges said. “That population of students is growing, which costs more money to educate than general education students.”

“So it’s not as black and white as the numbers would suggest,” he said. “You may lose 2% of your population in one particular district, but gain 5% more in high-needs students.”

A look at enrollment numbers from 2009,  and a decade later in 2019 shows:

Downward trend: As a whole, enrollment in the region’s 38 school districts and 20 charter schools totaled 154,873 students. That’s a decrease of 8 percent, or 12,105 students, from the 2008-09 school year.

Rural decline: Among the combined 58 districts and charter schools throughout Erie and Niagara counties, 60% saw their enrollment go down during that 10-year period.

The shrinking was noticeable in districts big and small, urban and suburban.

In Williamsville and Niagara Falls, enrollment went down 5% over the past decade; in Lancaster, enrollment went down 8%; Orchard Park and West Seneca were both down 11%; Clarence and Hamburg were both down 16%; and Ken-Ton, Iroquois and North Tonawanda were all down 23% from a decade ago.

But rural districts saw the biggest declines.

Barker, Newfane, Wilson, Lake Shore and Eden had decreases ranging from 26%  to 34%.

Charters soaring: Bucking the downward slide were charter schools, where their expansion in the City of Buffalo lured students from the Buffalo Public Schools. That migration pushed charter enrollment up by more than 50 percent over the past decade to 11,103 students.

Buffalo schools, meanwhile, saw enrollment dip by 4 percent.

Standout districts: Lackawanna saw enrollment hold steady, while in Amherst it went up slightly from 10 years ago.

The 6% rise in enrollment in Starpoint was the only noticeable growth among local districts.

Housing developments continue to spring up in Pendleton and Wheatfield, drawing young families to the school district, said Superintendent Sean Croft. He  believes the main reason enrollment has shot up in Starpoint is that people have noticed the improvement in the district’s academic programs and outcomes.

“We take this as a major compliment,” Croft said of Starpoint's increase in enrollment. “We hear all the time about why families have moved into the district and it’s because of the school district itself.”

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