Save our small schools

Keene Central students attend one of the Park’s smallest schools. Photo by Susan Bibeau
Keene Central students attend one of the Park’s smallest schools. Photo by Susan Bibeau

Few institutions are as important to the quality of small-town life as the local school.

The public school does far more than prepare the next generation for success—as essential as that mission is. It can be the social center of a community, a major employer, and an economic driver—a key factor in whether families choose to move into a community and remain through the years they raise their children.

When the local school is in trouble the well-being of everyone around it is at risk. And throughout the Adirondacks, schools face challenges so daunting they call into question their future viability. The issue cries out for a region-wide, high-level response by educators and community leaders from both the local and state levels.

Adirondack schools are swimming against strong demographic and economic currents. And they are doing so in a region where geography denies many of them the solutions that districts elsewhere in the state can turn to. Consolidation of schools into larger, centralized districts, a strategy favored by state officials, is not an attractive answer in an area where communities are separated by long distances that need to be navigated over mountain roads, often in harsh conditions.

Adirondack school enrollments, reflecting the Park’s small and aging population, are themselves small and shrinking. Some districts are startlingly tiny. Long Lake barely has sixty students as the entire enrollment for prekindergarten though twelfth grade. Newcomb and Lake Pleasant have fewer than one hundred students each for the same thirteen grades. And Indian Lake, Keene, and Wells enroll fewer than two hundred each.
Even the larger districts are seeing their enrollments decline. Saranac Lake, for example, began the year with 1,375 students, but that is a 6 percent drop from four years ago.

According to the Adirondack Regional Assessment Project, the student population in the Adirondacks dropped 30 percent between 1970 and 2007.

The fact that schools are small doesn’t necessarily translate into a lower-quality education. There are often benefits to smaller classes. And the fundamental challenge of remaining viable can inspire schools to be creative. Readers of the Explorer will remember that the Newcomb Central School District has turned to hosting international students as a way of filling its classrooms.

But as the reality of shrinking schools plays out across the Park and over time, it’s clearly a problem we have to come to grips with. Smaller schools are less able to provide the variety in curriculum that makes for a rich educational experience. Elective classes, advanced courses, and extracurricular activities can’t match what larger schools can offer.

And, unable to take advantage of economies of scale, districts find it harder to meet the costs of faculty and support staff. Schools across the state have gone through lean financial times in recent years as they cope with the economic recession, reductions in state aid, and pressures to meet caps on property-tax increases. The crunch has hit particularly hard in the Adirondacks’ rural districts, which have small tax bases and less management flexibility because of their sizes.

These are threats to the very existence of some schools and the overall vitality of the Park. Everybody with a stake in the future of the Adirondacks needs to focus on possible solutions. Answers will probably have to include ways for districts to combine forces both in educational programs and in management services. Some districts have begun exploring whether they can share top executives, including a school superintendent. Other operations, like purchasing and administrative services, can be shared without weakening the local character of individual districts.

And some curriculum can be shared, perhaps with certain schools offering advanced classes and electives that students from other districts can attend. Technology should make this easier as broadband Internet becomes more available throughout the Park. Distance learning, in which students use computers to join in a virtual classroom, may bring a new era of teaching for small schools.

We need to ramp up the efforts to find solutions while there is still time.
When the Adirondack Common Ground Alliance brought together Adirondackers of all descriptions to envision a future for the Adirondacks, it found a consensus on the need to tackle the issues of public schools. The report by Adirondack Futures said, in part:

We will never have schools with the scale of major urban areas. We need to figure out the ways that we make these smaller schools work academically, socially and financially.

Great. But it also found:

There are people interested in working on these issues but there is no leader at this time.

It called for a summit on how to make small rural schools work. This would be an excellent start. Gather the educators, residents, elected representatives, and state officials who together have the knowledge and power to chart a course toward excellence, not just survival, of our community schools. Let them see the urgency of the need and put them to work.

—Tom Woodman, Publisher

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