AMHERST - A new study of trends in the elementary and regional schools over the past five years sheds light on declining enrollment and staffing at a time when budgets for next year are facing further cuts.
The study - distributed Tuesday at the Amherst School Committee meeting - was requested by the committee and executed by the administration.
Enrollment in the elementary schools has steadily declined since 1998-99, when it was 1,592, to 1,268 this year. The study projects continued declines in the next two years.
The regional school enrollment, which peaked in 2001-02 at 2,068, has been declining since then and is currently 1,691. It is projected to continue declining to 1,480 in 2014-15.
The number of Amherst elementary children attending charter schools has jumped from one in 2007 to 11 in 2008 to 25 in 2009, according to the study. Enrollment in charter schools by residents of the Amherst-Pelham region, however, has stayed relatively constant.
The number of families choosing to send elementary-age children to schools other than Amherst's has increased dramatically, the study showed. It has jumped from seven in 2001 and 15 in 2002 to 26 in 2008 and 34 in 2009.
Enrollment in vocational schools is up from 32 last year to 40 this year.
The percentage of students receiving special services, such as special education and English language instruction, has stayed constant over the past five years. But the number of special-ed out-of-district placements has fallen sharply from 2002: from seven to three in the elementary schools and from 56 to 18 for the region, according to the study.
Budget cuts have totaled $2 million in the elementary schools and $3.79 million in the regional schools since fiscal 2007. This has resulted in the loss of the equivalent of 60.6 full-time positions in the elementary schools and 69.5 in the regional schools, according to the study.
These cuts have resulted in a wide variety of consequences, according to the study.
Since 2007, elementary class sizes have increased, instruction in art, music and physical education has been cut back, and there has been less support to struggling students. There have been cuts in hours for aides, custodians and librarians.
At the Regional Middle School, teachers have less preparation time and more students, the study says. Classes in non-core studies have been greatly reduced, and there have been cuts in guidance and assistant principal positions.
Among the many changes at Amherst Regional High School are a narrowing of social studies offerings, limited opportunities to start a world language in ninth grade, elimination of an American Studies course, and the ending of courses in technology and computers. Access to music education for those not in ensembles has diminished, according to the study.
The schools have adopted several computer systems that have improved efficiency, according to the study. All schools improved lighting efficiency in 2008, saving $33,000 since then, and regional school oil burners were converted to dual fuel in 2007, saving $75,000, according to the study.
Note from Catherine: I wanted to add a few things to this article which I believe will help give readers a clearer sense of the information presented.
1. Given the enrollment declines (over 300 students fewer at the elementary level over the last 10 years, and an additional over 300 students fewer at the regional level over the last few years), budget declines would be expected to offer the same services: fewer classroom and specialist (intervention, etc.) teachers should be needed, and potentially fewer administrators. Thus, some decline in budget makes sense, in light of this relatively major decline in enrollment.
2. The numbers presented in terms of who is choosing to attend a school other than Amherst's are misleading -- they include ONLY students who choose to attend a public school other than Amherst via School Choice. Students who have chosen to attend private school or to be homeschooled are not included in these numbers.
3. The report notes that budget cuts have increased class sizes in the elementary level, but does not report what these increases amount to. So, I checked budget numbers for the three years for which I have data (2007 to 2009). In 2007, there were 1382 kids in the Amherst elementary schools, and 70 classrooms were used, for an average of 19.74 kids per class. In 2008, there were 1316 kids in 69 classrooms, for an average of 19.07 kids per class. We've heard this year (at the most recent meeting) that class size averages are now 19, and will increase to 20 next year if the worst case economic projections occur. But it is hard for me to see these numbers as showing that elementary school class size averages have increased -- at least over the last 3 years -- nor do I believe that average class sizes of 19 or 20 in the elementary schools should be a concern.
4. At the middle school level, teachers used to teach 4 classes a day and now teach 5 classes a day. At the 7th grade level, class sizes have not changed (20), but at the 8th grade level, class sizes have increased this year from last (20 to 25). Non-core electives in family/consumer science, technology education and reading/writing/research have been eliminated, although classes in health, computers, drama and art remain (two of these are taken in 7th, and two in 8th). In addition, students do have option to have music (chorus, band, or orchestra) every other day -- which will increase to every day next year (even at the worst case economic projections).
5. A number of classes at the high school have been eliminated due to budget cuts. These include classes in ethnic diversity, death and dying, American West, Digital Electronics, Computer Networking, and Stained Glass. Students who do not choose to take a world language in 7th grade are limited to choosing between French (at the honors level only) and Spanish, unless they are able to work independently with a teacher on another language. Students who take a world language in 7th and 8th grade have the same option of 6 different languages to continue with in high school (French, Spanish, German, Russian, Latin, Chinese). But I think the biggest concern about the current (and projected) high school schedule is that students are now spending two of their 15 periods in a study hall -- and the high school administration presented a proposed budget at the last SC meeting that would increase that to three study halls a year. That strikes me as a much more significant problem than the elimination of some computer and social studies electives.