A group of empty desks fill an empty classroom.



When William Cameron started his education career as a federal programs administrator in Pittsfield Public Schools, the rural western Massachusetts district had more than 12,000 students.

Today, 45 years later, the district has just over 5,000. And with limited industry to replace the General Electric complex that once employed more than 10,000 people in Berkshire County, those numbers continue to decline.

“When GE went away, it had a cascading effect on the economics around here,” says Cameron, who has been a superintendent in four districts and now is chairman of the Pittsfield School Committee, the school district governing body. “The city’s population has fallen from 60,000 to 40,000, and the loss has been felt in every district in Berkshire County.”

As schools nationwide struggle — to widely varying degrees — with declining enrollment that has still not fully rebounded after the pandemic, the effect is acutely felt in small and rural districts that already are on a financial tightrope while dealing with inflation and growing employment shortages. In some cases, districts such as Pittsfield have been dealing with a decline for years, while others are seeing demographic shifts as populations age and younger families move to suburban and urban areas.

Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, says small districts have dealt with this “constant churning cycle” for decades. But post-pandemic, with the birth rate declining nationally and more rural parents feeling disconnected from their local schools, he says districts must double down on their efforts to engage the public.

“It’s not a quick fix. It’s a tough fix,” Pratt says. “But schools must look for ways to work with their local governments and encourage people to come back or stay in their communities. We’ve got to make all people feel like they are part of their community again.”

Accomplishing that, Pratt and others admit, is easier said than done.

“If a community is suffering from other major structural problems, such as economic displacement and decline, schools can only work around the margins to keep families there,” says Thomas Dee, a Stanford University education professor and researcher who has studied enrollment trends in the wake of COVID. “That’s a tough spot to be in.”

Enrollment declines

Two-and-a-half hours from Boston and three hours from New York City, Berkshire County is rich in culture and history. It is home to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Barrington Stage Company. Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick in Pittsfield and author Edith Wharton wrote several of her novels while living in nearby Lenox.

“It’s a fairly remarkable place,” Cameron says, “but the people who are patronizing the area are taking advantage of the opportunities these institutions provide. They’re not the ones whose kids are in our schools.”

As enrollment has declined in Pittsfield, the district has become more racially and ethnically diverse, with 40% of the student population identifying as Black, Hispanic, or mixed race. For Cameron, the issue comes down to “financial and fairness equity.”

“We’re no longer educating large numbers of children whose parents have engineering degrees and are working for GE,” he says. “But we have a few school districts here that are quite well off, and they’re prepared to pay a lot to keep their relatively small enrollments just as they are. As a result, the quality of education here depends on your ZIP code as much as anything. That’s neither fair nor equitable.”

The number of students attending Massachusetts’ public schools has been dropping since 2018, especially in the western part of the state. In Westfield, which currently has 12 schools, the number of students has fallen from 5,400 to 4,900 during Stefan Czaporowski’s seven years as superintendent.

In early June, Czaporowski attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a long-planned elementary school that will combine three small campuses into one when it opens in January 2025. Midway through the design, architects were asked to shrink the campus from 600 students to 400 because enrollment in that part of the district is not expected to rebound.

“What we’re seeing is a population that is aging,” Czaporowski says. “People who’ve had their kids already are the ones who are still living here. It’s been challenging, because when you lose 50 kids in one year, it’s a significant loss and a hit to the budget. Unless they all come from one school and one grade, it’s also not a clean thing to manage.”

After several years of declines, Westfield’s enrollment rose by 100 students when the district opened its first virtual school for grades 6-12 last fall. A product of the pandemic, the school has helped the district recapture students who otherwise would have been homeschooled or enrolled in one of the state’s two virtual K-12 programs. The district also added 63 student refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan this year.

“I feel fortunate,” Czaporowski says. “It’s been a challenge, especially in terms of staffing for 63 English learners who come to you overnight, but it’s a good thing. Given that in western Massachusetts enrollment is declining everywhere, we’ll take all the students we can get.”

A teacher stands in the middle of a classroom while a group of young students work.



Demographic changes

Nationwide, public school enrollment fell dramatically from 50.8 million students in fall 2019 to 49.5 million in fall 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Federal projections predict the number will drop to 47.3 million by 2030.

Dee says the largest declines during the pandemic, not surprisingly, were in California, Illinois, and New York — home to the nation’s three largest school districts. Enrollment in Texas and Florida grew slightly due to population increases.

In all districts, Dee notes, changes in demographics — aging populations and lower birthrate — remain the major driver behind the declines.

“Knowing that matters because it indicates enrollment loss will be enduring,” Dee says. “And that presents some particular challenges for small schools, because you need some scale to provide and fund multitiered systems of support and instructional specialists who can help with student needs.”

Since the pandemic, schools have managed to offset enrollment declines due to federal relief funding that must be spent by September 2024. Analysts predict budget cuts, closures, and layoffs are ahead if high inflation continues.

“No question, that’s what is going to happen,” says Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “When student numbers decline, you will struggle to balance your budget, especially in high-need communities. It’s been the education story since the beginning of time.”

In Wisconsin, several school districts are planning to close or consolidate schools due to drops in enrollment. In Wausau, which has lost more than 10% of its student population over the past two decades, the school board voted in February to close five of its 13 elementary campuses as part of a districtwide restructuring. By the fall of 2025, Wausau’s two high schools will be turned into grade 8-9 and 10-12 campuses, and the middle schools will be reconfigured to serve grades 5-7.

“The population of this entire region has dropped,” says Superintendent Keith Hilts, whose district is in the north- central part of the state. “There has been a shift in the demographics from the rural areas to the more urban and suburban areas down near Milwaukee and the Fox River Valley. We have some employers who are struggling because they can’t find workers, and people have left the region.”

Hilts says the restructuring was prompted by the drop in enrollment, but it also is designed to “equal out educational opportunities for students and working conditions for staff.”

“The board redrew the boundaries in 2016 to fix the inequities, but people simply just moved to where they wanted to be. In our community, the west side grows, and the east side shrinks, and redrawing boundaries won’t repair that,” Hilts says, noting most of the elementary schools now serve around 200 students. “Right now, we have very different education experiences for kids depending on the schools they attend. You’re able to do more things with your programming when you have more kids in the same school.”

The sun shines inside a school bus with no students.



Consolidation, choice, and vouchers

In addition to demographic changes and school closures, small and rural districts in some states are fighting age-old battles that also affect enrollment: consolidation, choice, and vouchers. In Michigan, a state that already allows open enrollment and intradistrict choice, legislators have put millions into the budget to encourage districts to consolidate voluntarily.

“Voluntary consolidation is almost a contradiction in terms,” says Joshua Cowen, professor of education policy at Michigan State University. “It didn’t go anywhere.”

Cowen says a strong case has not been made for consolidating school districts “strictly on the basis of efficiency gains or academics.” He says the issue has become “such a politically complicated question that research doesn’t shed a lot of light on,” and notes that consolidating districts has bigger costs in terms of community identity and support for public schools.

“At the end of the day, there are larger economic and population issues at play here,” he says. “We tend to think if it affects education that education decisionmakers can affect change, but there’s not much you can do at the district level to stave off declining enrollment.”

In Arizona, enrollment has declined in more than 70% of the state’s 15 counties, forcing rural districts to scramble. Charter schools have proliferated in the state over the past 15 years, and a universal voucher program also was recently signed into law.

“The voucher program gives parents 80% of what the state would spend to educate a child in a public school, and that’s creating some opportunities for choice in rural environments that maybe weren’t here in the past,” says Sean Rickert, superintendent of the 1,200-student Pima Unified School District and president-elect of the Arizona Rural Schools Association.

What keeps Rickert up at night, at least for now, are not charters and vouchers, but a shortage of qualified teachers and administrators. Like many rural districts, he has been forced to rely more on lateral entry professionals amid a dearth of applications.

“Twenty years ago, we were hiring the lone candidate way too often,” says Rickert, whose district has 1,200 students. “Nowadays we’re hiring teacher prep candidates as teachers. That compounds the problem of how we position ourselves to deal with the economic threats to community schools.

“We’ve been lucky over the past 10 years, at least in Pima, that the economy has been strong. We rely heavily on a single employer as many communities do, and if they go somewhere else our enrollment will take a dive,” he adds. “It’s a razor-thin line we’re on, and we know it.”

Cameron, now in his mid 70s, has served as interim superintendent in three of Berkshire County’s 17 school districts, which serve a total of 14,500 students. He supports merging the smallest districts, but says the task is as difficult as “trying to merge North and South Korea.”

Several years ago, Cameron helped organize Berkshire Educational Resources K12, a countywide nonprofit that supports the districts and educators. Known as Berk12, the collaborative has helped schools share resources for online instruction and is working on a “Portrait of a Graduate” program with several high schools in the county. But Berk12 has not been able to do as much as he would like due to “haphazard funding” that is reliant on donations, small earmarks from local legislators, and foundations that have collaborated on specific projects.

“I’m not sure that school districts by themselves or the communities that school districts serve are in a position to come up with constructive, long-term solutions to declining enrollment,” he says, noting that state legislators have been reluctant to look at consolidation like other states. “That leaves it up to local initiatives, such as Berk12, which is working as well as it can be, given restrictions that are partly political and partly financial.”

He sighs. “It’s not fair, it’s certainly not desirable, but it is what it is,” he says. “Hopefully we can make it better tomorrow for kids than it is today.”

Glenn Cook (glenncook117@gmail.com), a contributing editor to American School Board Journal, is a freelance writer and photographer in Northern Virginia.


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