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Southold third-graders had a video call with students in Bulgaria last spring. Courtesy photo: Southold UFSD

As local population ages, North Fork schools adapt to declining enrollment

It was about a dozen years ago when Dr. Anne Smith, then principal of Cutchogue East Elementary School, wondered how she would possibly keep up with the growing number of students flooding through the doors.

“It was family after family, young families, lots of kids,” she recalls. “We opened a school and we filled it and were making room,” she said, referring to the expansion of Cutchogue East Elementary.

Smith, who is now superintendent of the Mattituck Cutchogue School District, watched as enrollment has dropped nearly 20 percent district-wide since the 2000-2001 school year.

“The first shift we saw was fewer young families were coming in and more middle school and secondary kids enrolling. Those seemed to be families from further west selling a home and moving here because they were attracted to the lifestyle. We started to see a shift to them coming in during the middle grades and upper grades.”

Smith cites a number of different factors, including the stock market and the rising cost of housing, as reasons for the change in the demographic of the area.

“There were so many things that happened,” she said.

Anticipating the enrollment decline, the district has been keeping eyes on the numbers for some time. If a teacher retires, he or she is not replaced unless it’s absolutely necessary. There has been no need to let staff go at this point, said Smith. Current staff has been proactive and flexible, picking up additional certifications in areas where there’s a need.

In years when the school population was higher, class sizes were larger and a drop in the number of students doesn’t necessarily mean fewer sections of a certain grade, she said.

“So whether a class has 17 or 22 students, it’s still a section,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a relief if a class with 92 students is starting and 127 are leaving. That helps me keep the same number of teachers but bring my class size down from 29 to 22.”

As the number of students entering elementary school is gradually getting smaller, there is a less dramatic impact in grades seven and up due to students entering school in the middle and upper grades. Some students transfer from Catholic elementary schools; others may arrive from other countries or are new to the North Fork.

Smith is confident the district can handle the fluctuation in enrollment by being flexible and creative. Shifting staff, encouraging teachers to pick up multiple certifications, and even renting out unused classrooms at Cutchogue East.

Just Kids Early Childhood Learning Center runs a therapeutic preschool there and has for many years, said Smith. “They benefit because they’re in a beautiful school with other children. Local families have a nice therapeutic preschool option and can send their kids to that preschool.”

For Smith and her colleagues, it’s all about keeping up the high quality of education; to look for efficiency and opportunity and to stay as up-to-date and progressive as possible. Having fewer kids can actually improve the quality of a program, she said.

“For the last two years now we’ve been able to offer an agriculture program because the teacher’s not completely booked with Earth Science classes. We had a space for a new elective, someone could teach it and the kids wanted it. And if we have to reduce something, we look for something equally innovative to replace it with.”

The Southold School District has seen a similar decline in enrollment over the past 15 years, although the numbers at Greenport have remained steady.

David Gamberg, superintendent of the Southold and Greenport School Districts, has also been keeping a close eye on declining enrollment.

“In Southold we are addressing this in a variety of ways by adjusting staffing and insuring that we can preserve programs for students in a cost-effective way,” he said.

Southold and Greenport already share NJROTC and some athletics and are beginning to share more and more academic classes. Like the Mattituck Cutchogue district, Southold has gotten more creative to meet the needs of the students as enrollment drops.

“Our budgets have been maintained under the cap,” said Gamberg. “We’ve kept them very modest in recent history and we expect to do that in the future. In the area of staffing, if people don’t have to be replaced, then we don’t. If we do it’s because it’s a mandated course and we need someone to handle that coursework.”

Like Smith, Gamberg also looks for teachers with multiple certifications and stays flexible, looking at a spectrum of approaches and shifting resources.

He is committed to preserving the quality of education in the districts and making the school experience vibrant.

As an example of a rich school experience, Gamberg cites the recent Brady Rymer concert at Southold School.

“Mattituck, Oysterponds, Greenport and Riverhead were all watching live from their home schools,” he said. “It was broadcast from our auditorium. We have the technical ability to do this and we have the skills the teachers are teaching kids. We also had kids in Kenya, Africa watching. That’s the kind of thing that makes school purposeful and makes what we need to do with whatever number of kids we have still important and significant.”