By Sara Foss
In a darkened room at Indian Lake Central School District, six students sit quietly and at attention, eyes fixed on the two screens in the front.
Using a mix of smartly edited video clips and live, online instruction, these screens immerse the teenagers in a subject not taught on their own school campus, or by any of their teachers: marine biology.
Indian Lake, with just 120 students in grades K-12, uses distance learning to augment its academic offerings. That gives high school students access to a broader array of courses. The marine biology class is taught over 70 miles away, at Granville High School in Washington County.
“Someone might say, ‘Your course selection—how are you supplementing it?’” said Indian Lake Superintendent David Snide. “And we can say, ‘through distance learning.’”
Snide, who retires in June, has seen Indian Lake’s enrollment fall by more than 50 percent since arriving in the Hamilton County school district in 1989.
Grade sizes range from five to 14 students, and small classes and activities are the norm. A recent band rehearsal drew fewer than 20 students from both the middle and high school. At recess, 11 second- and third-graders played in the snow.
“We’re so small, everybody gets two lockers,” Snide remarked, while walking the halls of a building constructed with a much larger student body in mind.
Throughout the Adirondacks, public school district enrollment has been dropping steadily for decades, mirroring broader population trends in the Adirondack Park.
And while this exodus of young people and families wouldn’t seem to bode well for the region’s shrinking school districts, Snide believes he’s leaving his district well-positioned for the future.
“The technology we have now is going to be key for North Country schools,” Snide said. “We will use it more and more, and in different ways, as we move forward.”
The challenges facing Indian Lake are faced by districts throughout the Adirondacks, and the question of how to provide a robust and well-rounded education amid ongoing enrollment declines is paramount.
It’s a complicated, sometimes thorny, issue, and the idea typically floated as a solution, merging districts, is unpopular. Residents are attached to their local schools, and view closing them as a last resort.
“The school is the heart of the community,” said Daniel Mayberry, superintendent at Keene Central School. “People who don’t have children in the district come to our concerts and plays. It helps bring the community together.”
Keene’s enrollment has been fairly flat during the past decade, fluctuating slightly from year-to-year. In 2010–2011, 157 students were enrolled in the district; in 2020–2021, 159, according to state enrollment data.
To Mayberry, these numbers are good news —a sign that his small district is viable and alive. When enrollment drops, “the merger discussion comes up,” he said. “We’re thankful we’re able to maintain stability.”
In Essex County—one of two counties located entirely within the Adirondack Park—Keene is something of an outlier.
Public school enrollment in Essex County has been dropping steadily, from 4,171 in 2010-2011 to under 3,600 today, a decline of more than 10 percent. In Ticonderoga Central School District, enrollment fell over 19 percent, from 897 to 724. In Lake Placid, it fell 17 percent, from 725 to 598.
In Hamilton County, where Indian Lake Central School District is located, the decline in enrollment has also been dramatic. With a population density of just over three people per square mile, Hamilton is the most sparsely populated county east of the Mississippi River, with fewer than 4,500 year-round residents.
In 2010-2011, there were 546 students enrolled in Hamilton County public schools; in 2020-2021, 397. The decade saw two schools close: the elementary school in Piseco, which opted to send kids to Lake Pleasant in Speculator, and Inlet Common School, a K-6 school that now sends students to Webb.
These enrollment declines aren’t occurring in a vacuum.
Rural areas throughout the U.S. are losing population, hollowing out once-vibrant communities, and the overall birth rate is declining. The result is a country that’s growing older, where families are having fewer children and young adults are in demand. By 2030, one-third of Park residents are projected to be over 60, the Northern Forest Center found.
“Our school population is going to continue to get smaller and smaller,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of the non-profit organization Protect the Adirondacks. “That’s just the reality.”
“There are lots of retirees coming up and contributing very graciously to the community,” said Shaun Gillilland, chair of the Essex County Board of Supervisors. “What we really need is child-rearing, working-age families.”
The Northern Forest Center, a Concord, N.H.-based organization with a mission of strengthening the communities of northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York, sees a way to reverse the Adirondacks’ population decline. It will require addressing “infrastructure challenges, social dynamics and basic economics,” its recent report concluded.
Leslie Karasin, the center’s Adirondack program manager, said the region’s small schools are a strength to build on, and that families who desire a tight-knit, high quality educational experience for their children have plenty of options.
“The average young family looking for an excellent school system would be thrilled with what you can find in Keene.”— Leslie Karasin, Adirondack program manager, Northern Forest Center
In the Adirondacks, a shortage of good jobs has driven young people away in search of better opportunities, while a pandemic-fueled boom in second-home sales and short-term rentals is pricing longtime residents out of the area.
Spotty broadband also makes it difficult to attract people who might find living in a rural area appealing, but consider good, reliable internet service essential.
Bauer said it’s unfair to blame the state agencies charged with regulating the Park or the environmental groups that seek to protect it for the region’s population drain, but Gillilland took a different view.
“(Population loss) is a national problem in rural areas, and then in the Adirondack Park you have layers of bureaucracy and regulation above and beyond what anyone else in the state has to deal with,” he said. “That limits economic growth or new industries coming in. … There’s a critical shortage of housing. For the young people who grew up here, there are no jobs and no housing.”
John Goralski, superintendent at Warrensburg Central School, said what’s needed is an economic development plan for bringing good jobs to the Adirondacks.
“If the state and local government and school districts all work together, they can come up with a good economic development plan,” Goralski said. “They can protect the environment and make this a good place for people to live and come.”
In Warrensburg, many residents are empty nesters whose kids once attended school there. But because younger families haven’t moved in, the student body has shrunk. During Goralski’s eight-year tenure, enrollment has dropped more than 20 percent, from 820 to 650.
In a recent paper titled “Forgotten Family Member,” the Rural Schools Association of New York State outlined the top challenges facing rural schools and identified some possible remedies. Among other things, the organization urges the state to promote the creation of regional high schools.
Under this model, students would remain in their communities for grades K-8, and then attend larger, regional schools for high school. The idea is that these schools would be able to offer more courses and extracurriculars and thus do a better job of preparing students from rural areas for the next step, be it college or a job.
David Little, executive director of the Rural Schools Association, said research shows that kids from rural districts struggle when they leave high school.
“Rural schools graduate in excess of 90 percent of their students,” he said. “But three out of four of those students never even get a two-year college degree.”
The Forgotten Family Member paper is dismissive of mergers and consolidation, saying it “hasn’t worked in New York State.”
There is one recent example of a school merger in the Adirondacks: Boquet Valley Central School District, which brought together students from Westport Central and Elizabethtown-Lewis Central school districts in 2019.
“We are absolutely offering more opportunities for our students than either district was able to before the merger,” said Joshua Meyer, superintendent at Boquet Valley.
The staff is larger, there are more electives for middle and high schoolers and extracurricular activities such as archery have been added.
Merging has worked for Boquet Valley, but Meyer said it’s not a practical solution for every rural district. If the tax rates aren’t comparable, or the distance between districts is too great, a merger proposal will likely fail.
“A lot of things need to happen for a merger to be successful,” Meyer said. “It’s a viable option for some districts, but not for others.”
“Mergers are one of those things that sound good on paper, but they’re not realistic—at least, not in Schroon Lake. We already cover 320 square miles. That’s a huge distance. A merger isn’t realistic for us, and it’s not necessary for us.”— Stephen Gratto, superintendent in Schroon Lake
Schroon Lake is the rare district that has bucked the Adirondack Park downward enrollment trend. Between 2015 and 2020, school enrollment climbed from 200 to 275, a 37% increase.
Gratto attributed the jump to two factors: The district lowered its annual tuition from $4,000 to $1,000, prompting more out-of-district families to send their kids to Schroon Lake, and a nearby private school, Mountainside Christian Academy, closed. Some of those displaced opted to attend Schroon Lake.
Gratto said Schroon Lake reduced tuition to make enrollment available to students who might reside outside the district. “We’re in a position where we can accommodate more students without having to hire more staff,” he said.
He added, “I’d like to have 275 to 300 students in the building.”
Even as merging remains a touchy subject, school districts in the Adirondacks are working more closely. Indian Lake, Warrensburg and Schroon all belong to the True North, a coalition of eight school districts formed in 2017 with an eye toward greater collaboration.
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This first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine. Sign up for 7 issues a year, delivered to your inbox and/or mailbox.
Throughout the region, combining sports teams is common, and districts might sometimes share staff. Students often have the option of taking courses at community colleges, or participating in BOCES programs.
“Our program is rich,” said Rex Germer, Superintendent at Town of Webb Union Free School in Herkimer County, which had 257 students during the 2020–2021 school year. “We don’t have as many opportunities as big city schools. We offer one language, not four. But we’re able to offer a well-rounded program. We really get to know our students.”
In Indian Lake, staff said the same thing: that the district’s students receive a level of personal care that larger districts simply can’t match.
“Kids get a lot of individual attention,” high school math teacher Stephanie Bennett said. “If a kid is struggling, there’s no getting lost.”
In Indian Lake, Snide knows every student by name and inspired cheers when he ducked into a classroom to sub for a teacher. Colorful murals lend cheer to the halls, and a bulletin board features names of the school’s 14 graduating seniors.
The district experienced an 11% enrollment bump this fall, with the number of students rising from 108 to 120. School officials attributed the increase to families from urban, downstate communities moving to Indian Lake seeking refuge from COVID-19.
Still, the superintendent is well-aware of the struggles his district is likely to encounter in the future.
Recruiting staff to Indian Lake is already hard, though Snide hopes the district’s technology will help fill potential gaps, by giving students access to teachers who might not be on campus.
“If bigger districts like Lake George and Queensbury are finding it difficult to bring teachers on, it’s going to be more difficult here,” he said. “This year we hired five new teachers, and we got lucky—we have the best team we could possibly have.”
“But,” he added, “we didn’t get many applications.”
Sara Foss is a freelance writer based in Albany.
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