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Shrinking Schools

The problem of shrinking student enrollment ticks silently away until it becomes too urgent to ignore. Then it erupts into community outrage about tough decisions.

Image source: Pixabay.

The crisis underway in the Hudson Valley is a quiet one—mostly.

Shrinking student enrollment is one of those problems that ticks silently away, year after year, classrooms slowly emptying out, each new graduating class just slightly smaller than the one before. Only when the problem becomes too urgent to ignore does it erupt into noise and clamor, in the form of community outrage and emotional school board meetings crammed to overflowing with angry parents.

In 2012, Pattern for Progress, a local nonprofit organization that works on policy and planning issues, released “Closed Schools, Open Minds,” a report on shrinking school enrollments in the Hudson Valley.

The numbers were stark. In the years between 2002 and 2009, Pattern reported, the number of babies born in the Hudson Valley dropped 6.5 percent. Between 2000 and 2009, enrollment was in decline or flat in every county in the Hudson Valley except Westchester. Columbia County lost 20 percent of its student population; Greene, Sullivan, and Ulster each lost 10 percent.

Since that report was published, Pattern has returned to the topic several times with updated research. In the 2013 report “The Empty Classroom Syndrome,” the group found that of the 114 public school districts in the Hudson Valley, 94 had flat or declining enrollments. By 2015, when Pattern published “Diploma Disconnect,” the number was up to 95, of which most were grappling with steep declines. The group estimates that enrollments in the region will continue to fall until at least 2020.

For school districts facing declines in enrollment, the problem is immediate. When the student population drops too low to justify the number of schools in the region, school boards are forced to make upsetting and politically unpopular choices: closing school buildings, laying off staffers, slashing programs, even merging entire districts. Students spend more and more time on buses as the distance between schools in the region grows. A shrinking proportion of parents among local voters means a district may have a harder time passing its annual budget, feeding a vicious circle of falling enrollment and underinvestment.

Shrinking student enrollments have slower ripple effects throughout the community, too. When a town loses its only school, it becomes a less attractive place for parents to live. The loss of the town’s youngest citizens feeds into long-term population decline. Community engagement and civic pride suffer.

In 2013, education writer Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post wrote a column decrying a massive downsizing of Philadelphia’s school district. Here, Strauss is talking about a more urban environment than our own, in which schools are intertwined with city neighborhoods, but these words could have just as well have been written about the loss of small rural and suburban schools:

When a neighborhood loses its schools, it also loses an institution that builds relationships among local residents and binds generations, while it serves local children. Losing schools makes it all the more likely that these neighborhoods will deteriorate further.

Who would stay or move into a neighborhood that doesn’t even have a school in which parents and community members can invest their energies? 

The George F. Baker High School in Tuxedo. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Schools Make Tough Choices

The district with the dubious honor of having the fastest-shrinking population in the state is Tuxedo Union Free School District in Orange County. Between 2012 and 2017, the tiny district lost more than half of its students.

Tuxedo’s woes go deeper than the regionwide issue of plummeting birth rates and loss of population. The district lost two-thirds of its high school students in 2014, when neighboring district Greenwood Lake canceled a longstanding contract to send their high school students to Tuxedo.  

Last November, with passionate community debate swirling, the Tuxedo Board of Education voted 6-1 to keep the George F. Baker High School open, despite its enrollment of just 63 students and ballooning per-student costs.

Other districts in the Hudson Valley have had to make harder choices in recent years. In 2013, the Warwick Valley school board voted to close the Kings Elementary School, to the dismay and outrage of Kings parents. That year also saw the closure of Maybrook Elementary in Valley Central, where the school board’s vote was met with tears and calls to vote down the school budget.

Once a district makes the wrenching decision to close a school, the question remains: What should be done with the building? Some of the Hudson Valley’s shuttered school buildings stand eerily empty. Others have been given new life: Former elementary schools in Milton and Kingston have become part of SUNY Ulster’s expanding campus. In Brewster, developers are reportedly considering a project to transform the former Garden Street School, closed in 2012, into affordable housing. Amenia’s former elementary school is now a town hall and community center.

With school closures becoming more frequent—not just in the Hudson Valley, but in many places where demographic change is happening quickly—adaptive reuse of school buildings is becoming a pressing concern. Finding new life for an old building is a difficult task, but one with tremendous public importance: A 2013 Pew report on reuse of school buildings in 11 cities found that schools are difficult to sell, often going for far below market rate, and that school buildings that sit empty are likely to deteriorate dangerously and become hotspots for illegal dumping, scavenging, or drug use.

Fortunately for school districts facing closures—and for any community that is home to a beloved old building no longer living up to its mission—adaptive reuse is getting more attention lately from architects and planners. Here’s architect and historian Mark Alan Hewitt, writing for ArchDailymaking a case for more of the industry’s “green building” awards to go to reuse and adaptation projects rather than new buildings:  

Just as preservationists should pursue reuse instead of harping on pure restoration, architects should be shifting their attention toward additions and renovations rather than showering praise on high tech green machines.

Does your community have a shuttered school building, or other vacant property, that could be put to some creative new purpose? Let us know at