Vermont's kindergarten through twelfth grade student population was less than 88,000 in the 2010-11 school year, which is 20 percent lower than it was in 1997 when there were 106,000 students, according to the Vermont Department of Education. The impact has been greater in some parts of the state than others, but no region has been able to escape the trend.
In recent years, however, some schools have seen a reversal. In both Shaftsbury and Arlington, enrollment has been on the rise even though town populations remain stagnant.
Similar to other schools, declining enrollment hit Shaftsbury Elementary for a large part of the last decade. In the 2000-01 school year Shaftsbury had an enrollment of 241 students. That declined every year before hitting a low of 182 children in 2006-07. That drop equates to a loss of 10 students per year, and a 32 percent reduction in enrollment over six years.
In 2007-08 that trend reversed and 195 students were counted in the December 2010 enrollment census done by the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union. In the past two years, enrollment in Shaftsbury has really taken off. Last December the student count was up to 215 and at the beginning of this month enrollment was reported to be 232 -- marking a 19 percent increase over the past two years.
In the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, Arlington's schools have also seen healthy enrollment increases in recent years.
In 2004-05 Arlington Memorial Middle and High School had one of its highest enrollments in recent history with 262 students. That number dropped considerably each of the next five years as classes with about 40 students graduated twelfth grade and new sixth grade classes with 20 to 30 students progressed through the middle and high school. Enrollment dipped as low as 172 students just two years ago before the pattern swung.
Over the past two years enrollment at AMHS has grown by nearly 30 students, up to 201 students this year, according to Principal Kerry Csizmesia. The increase has been anticipated, as enrollment at Fisher Elementary has been on the rise every year since 2005-06 when enrollment hit a low of 127 students. This year, Principal Deanne Lacoste said there are 193 children at Fisher. Part of that increase is deceptive because the school added pre-kindergarten in that time, although pre-K amounts to fewer than 30 children this year so there are certainly other contributing factors.
The enrollment increases have been welcome to both schools as more students means more state aid and less burden on taxpayers. That was evidenced this year when nearly all of the other districts in the SVSU whose enrollment shrunk saw their tax rates increase even though spending remained flat. Shaftsbury School District's fiscal year 2013 budget increased more than 5 percent, but largely due to the increased student count, the tax rate remained flat.
While nobody is complaining about more students, the trends do have some town and school officials perplexed. Neither Shaftsbury nor Arlington has seen an increase in population, making the question of why more students are enrolling in the schools more difficult to determine.
SVSU Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke, whose office periodically does student enrollment projections for each school based on current students and actual births, said Shaftsbury's enrollment has come a surprise to everyone.
"This was not in the projections," he said.
A Shaftsbury enrollment projection completed in 2009 estimated the school's enrollment would remain around 200 children for years to come. Obviously those numbers have changed, and the most recent projection completed in the fall anticipates Shaftsbury's enrollment to continue growing until it hits a peak in 2017 with 246 students. If that projection holds true, Shaftsbury Elementary would have a higher enrollment than it did in 2000.
Pembroke cannot explain the reason enrollment has gone up, but said it does not appear to be families from within the SVSU moving one or two towns over to Shaftsbury.
Shaftsbury Town Clerk Judy Stratton was surprised to hear Shaftsbury Elementary's enrollment was on the rise. "We haven't had a lot of new (house) sales that would promote that," she said. "We've had sales but it's not more than normal."
Stratton said the only reason she could think of is the town's population may be getting younger, which could lead to more school age children.
Larry Johnson, who is a lister in town and sits on the Shaftsbury school board, agreed Shaftsbury has a younger population than some towns and it has a number of properties that may be desirable and affordable for young parents. He also said the reputation of the quality education Shaftsbury Elementary provides likely attracts young parents and others looking to raise children.
Both Shaftsbury and Arlington share reputations for high quality schools and above-state-average standardized test scores. Of course, there are many other schools both in the area and state that have excellent reputations and test scores that are still experiencing a drop in student population.
Arlington Town Clerk Robin Wilcox said she has not seen the population in town fluctuate in recent years, and noted Arlington's population actually decreased from the 2000 census to the most recent census in 2010.
Wilcox said maybe there are more job opportunities than there were years ago, which would attract a younger, working population. Although, she also said there has not been a great turnover of residents.
"Even on my voter checklist it stays pretty constant," she said.
At Fisher Elementary, Lacoste believes the primary reason enrollment has gone up is due to a higher birth rate in town, which the town itself does not track.
"I think the population of younger kids here in Arlington is increasing," Lacoste said. "It does seem that there's a correlation between the birthrate and our increase in enrollment. I don't think that it's really because people are moving here."
An enrollment projection done last year with Bennington County Head Start tracked the births in Arlington and Sandgate. Those statistics show enrollment is expected to continue increasing at Fisher for at least two or three more years, Lacoste said.
More students at the elementary level obviously translates to more students at the middle and high school levels later. Other than that, AMHS school counselor Joanna Lederar Barnes said the only other contributing factor for the school's increased enrollment that she sees comes from more students choosing to attend AMHS after being home schooled for years.
"I have noticed an increase of home school students returning to the public school," Lederar Barnes said. "Other than that, I don't know."
Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi