Final Thought column: Learning From the Past?

In 1970, school districts were furiously constructing new buildings and enlarging old ones to keep up with the huge number of students entering the schools. The Baby Boom had struck and there was no end in sight. Or was there?

What few noticed was that the boom – a period of 13 years when more than 3.9 million children were born annually – had ended in 1964. Ever since, there have been fewer births.

The 1970 kindergarten class was smaller than the previous one. The next year, a small first grade joined the small kindergarten. What came to be called“the birth dearth” was well underway and was to continue for another nine years.

School districts in the 1970’s found themselves with excess space. I was one of many people who wrote about what could be done with empty schools, ranging from improving the program (converting classrooms to libraries, art rooms, music rooms, and the like) to mothballing buildings for future use, to selling off the excess for other purposes.

Will History Repeat?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics 2006 enrollment is the largest in history. So why be concerned about what happened more than 30 years ago?

The problem is that overall numbers do not reflect local conditions. There are signs that in some school districts, even in some fast growing parts of our nation, student population growth may have slowed or stopped.

A July article in the Orlando Sentinel was headlined,“School enrollment drops across Florida; educators left puzzled.” According to the article, “Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval and Pinellas counties lost students as have 15 other districts.” Some others are described as “teetering on the edge of an enrollment drop.”

Shortly after reading that I received calls from three school districts in New York — one with the largest kindergarten in its history, the other two telling me that their kindergarten registration this year was unexpectedly low and wondering if there was an explanation.

There may be a lot of explanations — the slowdown in home sales is a likely factor, as are low local births five years ago, competition from charter schools, changes in the local economy causing young families to leave, changes in ethnicity — and the situation in each locality must be analyzed separately.

Beyond Cohort Survival

And that’s my point, and concern. Each district must look at its future. And normal cohort survival projections may no longer be sufficient for individual districts. They can give a false reading. A much more detailed look at the area, its population trends, and its economics must be undertaken. Here are two examples:

I was working with a suburban district in Pennsylvania in the 1990s. A previous consultant had developed a construction program based on cohort survival projections that showed student population — which had been growing rapidly — continuing to grow at that rate. An additional 2,500 students were projected within the next five years, more during the decade.

When those additional students did not arrive, the district asked me to reexamine the projections. Using the same data as the previous consultant, I came out with the same answer. But looking at data from the following five years, I got a much different picture. The elementary school population was declining and the district already had some excess space.

The key was not the span of years, it was the underlying economics of the area. There had been a slowdown. Three major employers had moved and young families with children had followed. Proposed housing developments stopped. The largest store had closed. While cohort survival data continued to show enrollment increasing, student population was in fact, starting down.

I had the opposite experience in a New York district at the same time. Based on cohort survival, I predicted continued slow growth. Actually student population spurted ahead. Why?

This district had vacant land sitting idle. When the national economy turned around and interest rates fell, developers went to work. During a two-year period, more than 1,000 new homes were constructed, sold, and occupied. My projections of slow growth were swamped because I had depended on cohort survival numbers and had not looked at the changing economics that led to sudden dynamic growth.

Cohort survival projections suggest that what has happened in the recent past will continue. But if the community and its economics are changing, cohort survival can give a false reading. A much more thorough investigation of the community should be undertaken at least once every five years to ensure that the existing cycle is not changing.

Paul Abramson is Education Industry Analyst for SP&M and President of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facility consulting firm based in Harrison, NY. He can be reached at intelled@aol.com.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at intelled@aol.com.

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