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School districts adjust to declining enrollment

Declining enrollment is a challenge in communities, but some cities and towns are feeling the impact more than others. (WJAR)

Declining enrollment is a challenge in communities, but some cities and towns are feeling the impact more than others.

For some students, back to school may soon mean a different building, different teachers, different traditions.

Warwick is approaching the second phase of a plan to close and consolidate schools, something that at times hasn't been popular.

The reason for the changes? Warwick's population of school-aged children has been dropping for decades.

"These have been trends that happened over many, many years. They just didn't act on those trends," said Dr. Ken Wagner, state commissioner of education.

Wagner said statewide, student enrollment held steady from 2016 to 2017.

Over the past decade, though, Rhode Island schools have seen enrollment drop about 6 percent. In some communities, the drop is steeper.

Warwick enrollment is down more than 50 percent since the 1970s -- from a high of about 19,000 to just 9.000 students.

The city went from three middle schools and three high schools, to just two of each.

Next fall, Warwick will go from 16 elementary schools, to just 13.

"Each school has its identity, has its legacy, has its traditions and its pride," Wagner said. "The question is at what point can you afford to continue a school's operation?"

It's a question Little Compton is trying to head off.

The small town has seen its single school drop from 348 students 20 years ago to just 241.

Administrators are offering out-of-town families the chance to pay $6,000 a year to see their children can benefit from small class sizes.

"This is really the heart of the community. And if we are having enrollment issues like a lot of schools are, I feel we need to do everything we can to fill empty seats here," School Committee Chairman Patrick McHugh said.

Little Compton ran newspaper ads in surrounding communities to attract students. So far, the district says four children from out of town have enrolled.

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