Fewer kindergarteners expected in Saranac Lake

District officials surprised to see only 62 signed up

Students get ready to enter Petrova Elementary School in Saranac Lake on the first day of the 2016-17 school year. (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

SARANAC LAKE — Numbers for kindergarten enrollment are low for the Saranac Lake Central School District this year. In other grades, a full class size is about 90 students. Smaller grades are closer to 80. The 2018-19 kindergarten is looking at about 62 students.

Where did all the kids go?

Superintendent Diane Fox has a system for logging enrollment numbers, but there doesn’t seem to be an exact trend, she said.

“Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve kept a chart of live births,” she said. “The state actually will report out live births by school district. So I keep that chart every year, and what I can tell you is that there is absolutely no correlation between the number of live births five years ago and the number of students who actually come to kindergarten.”

In 2002 the number of live births was 90, but kindergarten enrollment five years later was 101. In 2006 there were 100 live births, but five years later kindergarten enrollment was 82. In 2008 there were 125 live births. Five years later, enrollment was 95.

“It should be 90 this year,” Fox continued. “There is nothing to say five years ago that there was a substantial dip in the number of births in the Saranac Lake Central School District area.”

Petrova Elementary is Saranac Lake’s public elementary school, but kindergarten is also offered at St. Bernard’s, a Catholic parochial school on River Street, and Northern Lights School, a Waldorf institution on Church Street. St. Bernard’s has 17 students enrolled for kindergarten this year, and Northern Lights has 8. Both of those numbers are up from last year.

“There are few more children at St. Bernard’s for kindergarten [this year],” Fox said. “There are few more children in Northern Lights for kindergarten. But, no, they don’t have 30 more children combined at the two schools.

“I do not have any reason that I can give as to why [our enrollment] is low.”

A few years ago, the numbers were down, too — in the 75 to 80 range. Last year’s kindergarten enrollment was 77. Again, Fox said, the birth rates didn’t correlate to that enrollment dip. In the last five years, total SLCSD enrollment has dropped from 1,322 in the 2013-14 school year to 1,148 in 2017-18.

At Wednesday night’s Board of Education meeting, member Jeff Branch suggested that these days new families are moving away from the Saranac Lake area and retirees are moving in. Board member Clyde Baker added that people are having fewer children, too. Board President Rick Retrosi said 62 may be the enrollment now, but there is a possibility the number will increase when the school year starts.

One common sentiment is that class sizes should be smaller anyway. The National Council of Teachers of English thinks so. In a 2014 post on the council’s website, which references 16 scholarly articles, it says, “Overall, research shows that students in smaller classes perform better in all subjects and on all assessments when compared to their peers in larger classes. In smaller classes, students tend to be as much as one to two months ahead in content knowledge, and they score higher on standardized assessments. It is worth noting, however, that some studies analyze student assessment results in terms of individual student performance and others in terms of class-wide aggregated performance, which can obscure the differences in individual students’ performances.”

The post goes on to say that small class sizes are most significant in elementary school but don’t really make a difference in high school.

St. Bernard’s Principal Ray Dora said he sees benefits in small classes.

“I don’t think it affects the quality of education too much,” he said. “You’ve got a few less kids to bounce ideas off of, but any disadvantage is offset by being able to work closely with the individual students. Being a catholic school, smaller classes means less tuition, so that could be a negative impact.”

Petrova Elementary will have four sections of kindergarten this year. If one was cut and sections merged, the number of students in one classroom would increase to about 20.

So when is small too small?

“That’s the magic question,” Fox said. “It really is what a district can afford and what their priorities are. So I have people who pay their school taxes and say, ‘Well, why do my school taxes keep going up, but the number of students that we’re educating keeps going down?'”

Fox described it as a balancing act with tax rates on one side and the quality of education on the other.

“Education is not inexpensive in New York state,” she said. “There’s no magic number as to what the right balance is. Right now in kindergarten, I feel it’s a nice balance to have 15 or 16 students [in one room]. That’s a gift to my kindergarten students to be in a class size that size. I’m not sure I could justify that in fifth and sixth grade. Now I’m putting a bit of an undue tax burden on my taxpayers for class sizes that are too small, but not everybody would agree with that. You’ll also have a group that would say, that’s perfect for fifth and sixth grade. It’s always about looking at what your resources are and trying to balance all the different needs.”

Fox said it’s not just her district with low numbers.

“I just don’t think the students are out there,” she said. “Families are moving out. It’s not just a Saranac Lake issue. It’s a North Country issue. Many school districts are down.”

In the Lake Placid Central School District, enrollment in each grade was closer to 60 just a few years ago, but now the norm is 45, Superintendent Roger Catania said. In the last five years, total enrollment have floated in the 650 to 665 range.

When Brian “Liam” Kennelly ran for school board this spring, increasing enrollment was one of his motivations.

“A lot of the same concerns I had with the town relate to the school in that we’re facing what I would call an existential crisis in that people are leaving the area and not coming here,” Kennelly said in April. “Young families are not moving here. Young people are not staying here. Having the school be a draw for people to stay here or come here is very important to me.”

In the Tupper Lake Central School District, kindergarten enrollment is 62 for the 2018-19 school year. The year before that it was 65, and the year before that it was 75. Superintendent Seth McGowan said even though the enrollment has decreased, he thinks it’s going to plateau in the low 60s.

McGowan said there is a possibility families are having fewer kids or are moving away.

Two years ago, Tupper Lake High School had some enrollment issues with students dropping out.

“Our graduation rate is typically above the state average,” McGowan said, “but we did have a situation recently where students started ninth grade, and for one reason or another, they decided school wasn’t the right choice for them. We have had students come back, and that’s good. We encourage that.”

In a community the size of Tupper Lake, McGowan said every dropout is noticeable.

“If you have 50 kids graduating, a single kid is 2 percent,” he said, “so it has a much more immediate impact if that student drops out.”

McGowan said he would like to see graduates return and contribute to future enrollment.

“I want kids to come back and be members of the community,” he said, “but I also want them to explore the world and experience a life outside their comfort zone — live and work for many years someplace else. I don’t want them to feel as if they’re stuck in the town they were born in. The decision to come back should be conscious.”