Ridgefield school enrollment: 67 fewer students show up than projected

Photo of Peter Yankowski
Veterans Park teacher Kelly Feeney leads two kindergarten students to their rooms on the first day of school.

Veterans Park teacher Kelly Feeney leads two kindergarten students to their rooms on the first day of school.

Stephen Coulter / Hearst Connecticut Media

Ridgefield’s nine public schools are reporting 4,628 students enrolled this year — 137 fewer than the 4,765 that were enrolled during the 2018-19 school year, and significantly fewer than the district’s enrollment projections suggested.

The district projected 67 more students would enroll for the 2019-20 school year than actually did, according to a report that was presented to the Board of Education on Aug. 26.

Elementary schools saw the biggest gap between the district projections and the actual number of students who showed up to the first day of school, with 47 fewer students than projected.

“What struck me is this year Barlow Mountain continued to be something of an enigma,” said school board Chair Margaret Stamatis. “... That seems to be the one with the most fluctuation — or hardest to predict, I should say.”

The number of students reported at the Aug. 26 school board meeting are not the “official” numbers.

“[The August 26 numbers] can’t really be compared to the October 1 enrollment numbers that get reported to the state and which [demographers] Milone and Macbroom use in their projections enrollment report,” Stamatis said. “For instance, the numbers reported on August 26 were pulled on August 23, which is a week before school even starts. There can be quite a bit of movement those first few weeks of school before October 1 — influx and outflux, so it’s not a true comparison.”

Elementary schools

Thirty two fewer students enrolled than the district projected at Barlow Mountain Elementary School, according to the report — the largest gap between projected and actual enrollments in any of the six elementary schools. The enrollment gap was especially felt by the school’s first grade class, where 18 fewer students enrolled than were projected.

But last year, Barlow Mountain took in 39 more students than the district projected. Three additional teachers were hired, and members of the Board of Finance speculated schools might need to redraw the district lines that decide what neighborhoods go to which elementary schools. The idea was roundly rejected by the school board without a vote.

Stamatis pointed to the “surprise” increase at Barlow Mountain that Milone and Macbroom, the demographic consultant set to give the board an official enrollment presentation in November, did not foresee.

“It was not matched to a birth or home sale, and they surmised it could be due to rentals,” she said. “I believe M&M said that they are going to try to factor in rentals as part of their analysis for projections. It is curious that it is that same cohort of students (last year’s kindergartners and this year’s first graders) that are the lion’s share of the dramatic swings at Barlow.”

The school board chair also highlighted that the RISE program moved from Barlow to Farmingville this year.

“I don’t believe that change fully explains the shift,” she said. “I think we’ll try to get a better understanding of potential reasons at the November presentation.”

The Aug. 26 numbers do not include students from Ridgefield who go to schools off-site, students in the district’s programs for 18-21 year old adults, and pre-kindergarten students.

They are also an unofficial tally of students — the official numbers must be reported to the state by Oct. 1, said Personnel Director Karen Dewing.

Redistricting middle schools

While elementary schools saw the largest gap in their projections, middle schools actually saw the biggest drop in enrollment from this time last year. This year saw 78 fewer students enroll in the town’s two middle schools, 16 fewer students than the district projected.

Overall enrollment was down for the two schools, but Dewing pointed out that the district has completed its redistricting to even out the population of students going to each middle school. “There are three full grades that have now been redistricted and you’ll see that the enrollment is almost identical,” said Dewing.

East Ridge Middle School enrolled 562 students — 16 students under the projection, and Scotts Ridge Middle School enrolled 561, the number projected by the district.

Fewer students, fewer administrators?

Board member Tracey O’Connor asked why the schools have not decreased the number of administrators in light of declining enrollment.

“So just to confirm, we’re down 159 in the high school since 2013, and we have a problem with class sizes,” said O’Connor. “I said this four years ago when I came on the board — our admin staff is still the same.”

Stamatis said the schools are watching the “declining enrollment bubble” as smaller classes at the middle school matriculate into the high school. “That will be something that will continue to be a conversation at the table,” she said.

“Of the total students in the high school, I think 159 might not be a significant percentage as it was at the middle school level,” said board Secretary Kathleen Holz.

Class sizes and hires

The lower enrollments at the elementary schools resulted in another phenomenon, one that may be seen as a benefit by parents. Fewer students mean smaller classes, and according to the report, kindergarten and first grade classes at all six schools will be well under the 21-student maximum mandated by the board.

At Farmingville Elementary, the incoming kindergarten classes average fewer than 15 students, the lowest class-size average across all six elementary schools.

Board member Fran Walton pointed out that in the elementary schools, a handful of students enrolling in one grade at a school “will have a large impact.”

“That’s the phenomenon of having six grade levels in six sites,” said Dewing. “A slight variation like that can have a huge swing — typically, the board knows that those swings have resulted in being over budget at the elementary level, but not this year.”

This year, the schools have not had to hire additional teachers out-of-budget in order to keep class sizes below the board guidelines, Stamatis noted.

“This is the first year that I’ve been on the board that we’ve not had to do post-budget hires,” said Walton.