Student Enrollment Falls for Fifth Year Running; Two Towns Drop Sharply
By RACHEL KOVAC
School census figures released this week by the Vineyard public schools show total student enrollment falling for the fifth year in a row.
As of Oct. 1, the schools counted 2,219 students, 66 fewer than enrolled last year and almost 200 fewer students than four years ago.
The most dramatic change in numbers is at the West Tisbury School and the Oak Bluffs School, where enrollment dropped in the double digits.
"In a number of our schools the enrollment is steady," said Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss this week."We have seen two schools - Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury - show some significant decline. We are tracking the kindergarten numbers closely. We don't know the whys and wherefores, but it's a cause for concern."
In West Tisbury enrollment has plummeted over the past four years. This year the school lost 24 students and enrollment now stands at 299. Five years ago almost 400 students were enrolled at the West Tisbury school.
"This is a significant drop," Mr. Weiss said. "We need to take a real close look at that in terms of programming and staffing the whole school."
Oak Bluffs has traditionally been a large school, with more than 400 students, but this year enrollment dropped by 43 students and the kindergarten class has just 25 students. Last year 56 students entered kindergarten at Oak Bluffs.
"Our population is down," Oak Bluffs school principal Laury Binney told the town selectmen in a report on Tuesday."We are looking at the kindergarten figure very closely."
Mr. Binney said the trend for the school is usually in the low 50s or high 40s for the number of kindergarten students; he said the low numbers this year are a cause for concern and will affect next year's school budget.
School enrollment on the Vineyard continues to defy projections. In 2003 the New England School Development Council released projected enrollment numbers for 2008; West Tisbury has already dropped well below its projected enrollment of 355 students.
Mr. Weiss said some of the drop in West Tisbury could be tracked to the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, which has 158 students this year, down just two students from last year. The charter school is limited to 180 students and currently has a waiting list of about 100 students.
"I think it has an impact on West Tisbury because it is in West Tisbury," Mr. Weiss said. "It's just another school in town. Where if you're traveling from Oak Bluffs it's a trip. People don't necessarily see it in the same vein. We think the choice is good, but we do think it has an impact."
At the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School enrollment has inched upward for the fifth year in a row. High school enrollment now stands at 822 students, the largest yet. Last year the school had 815 students.
High school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan said there is an influx of about 40 students who come to the high school who did not go to elementary school on the Island.
"What we get for some reason is just kids who move here back from the charter school, back from private schools and then just sort of a random sampling of kids," she told the Gazette in an interview earlier this year. "They come here to live with their grandparents or they're old enough to stay on the Island. That's the big thing that's kept our enrollment pretty high."
In Edgartown, Tisbury and Chilmark enrollment has stayed relatively flat in recent years, fluctuating up and down by only a few students every year.
But as total enrollment drops, school budgets continue to increase. The proposed budget for the regional high school for the coming fiscal year is about $13 million, up $500,000 over last year.
Mr. Weiss said part of it is what many call the Island factor. He said the Island prides itself on having small classes, but also on programming. He said the schools have to provide lots of programs because students cannot just go to the next town to get them.
"We have very deep, rich programs," Mr. Weiss said. "Some of that is that we are on an Island and if you can't get it here, you're not going to get it. It presents a challenge.
"We are trying to put some of the programs in real terms. It's not just programs to dollars. We have to provide programming when nothing else is there."