School districts like those across the Hudson Valley are constantly faced with the ebbs and flows of student enrollment, with many experiencing in some cases significant declines in recent years. But how do those numbers correlate to population trends in New York State and Ulster County?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of New York State hit an all-time peak in 2020, surpassing the 20 million mark for the first time after a 3.31 percent jump from the previous year. The state first cracked the 19 million mark for the first time in 2000, up from 17,566,754 two decades earlier, and has never dropped below the mark since.
Ulster County’s population is generally also on the rise. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population in the county was 181,687 in 2020, inching closer to a peak of 183,174 in 2008, after which it steadily dropped to 177,933 in 2019, its lowest number since 2000.
But if the population in the county is up, why is student enrollment down? In part, it’s because Ulster County is trending older over the past two decades, notably among school age children. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 9,729 children aged 0-4 in the county compared to 7,874 in 2020. And while there were 36,764 children between the ages of 5-19 in Ulster County in 2000, that number fell to an estimated 29,000 in 2020.
Those trends were also reflected in local school districts.
In the 2000-01 school year, the Kingston City School District’s (KCSD) student population was 8,310. That number had fallen to 6,982 in 2010-11, and for the 2022-23 school year was down to 6,142.
The Saugerties Central School District has also seen a sustained enrollment decline over the past two decades, falling from 3,424 in 2000-01 to 2,978 in 2010-11, and finally to 2,319 in 2022-23.
Elsewhere, the New Paltz Central School District (NPCSD) saw a modest decline between 2000-01 and 2010-11 from 2,391 to 2,245. But the drop accelerated over the next decade, falling to 1,773 in the 2022-23 school year.
No local district has seen a more drastic reduction in student enrollment over the past two decades than the Onteora Central School District (OCSD), which in 2000-01 boasted 2,317 students, falling to 1,544 in 2010-11; the OCSD currently has a student population of 1,101.
While the trend locally began over 20 years ago, public schools nationwide saw the number of students enrolled in public schools decline much more rapidly in 2020-21, the first full academic year after the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Some of those students have since enrolled in private school, while others are being home-schooled. But according to a joint study conducted by Stanford University and the Associated Press and published last month, 59,084 of those students across New York State are simply “missing.”
The study compared nationwide enrollment figures between 2019-20 and 2021-22, finding that public school enrollment in New York State fell from 2,615,760 in the fall of 2019 to 2,483,362 two years later, a drop of 5.06 percent. In some states, private schools saw an increase in enrollment over that same period, but New York also saw a decline in that area as well, falling from 390,779 in the fall of 2019 to 382,510 in the fall of 2021, a decrease of 2.12 percent.
Many of those leaving public and private school during the period covered by the Stanford/AP study are officially being homeschooled. In New York, that number grew by 64.83 percent, jumping from 33,013 in 2019-20 to 54,414 two years later.
New York also saw a significant reduction in school age children during the academic years covered by the study, falling by 60,182 to 3,014,261.
As for the more than 59,000 “missing” students in New York State, their status is unclear, though experts speculate that they may have moved out of state or shifted to home-schooling without being officially registered. Some may also have simply stopped attending school altogether.
NPCSD Superintendent Stephen Gratto said his district saw their enrollment decline accelerate during the pandemic and isn’t sure whether they’ll get those students back.
“Perhaps some will return as COVID recedes, but there’s no real indication that that will happen,” he said. “We’ve definitely got a situation where we face a difficult, challenging budget season, and so we have to look at everything to find ways to balance the budget, and our decrease in enrollment certainly has to be something we consider as we look at the budget.”
But Gratto added that he doesn’t believe closing one of New Paltz’s two elementary schools is a consideration anytime in the near future. That was not the case in other local districts.
In 2004, the OCSD responded to declining student enrollment by closing West Hurley Elementary School. A decade ago, the KCSD addressed its own similar issues by shuttering four of its then-11 elementary schools as part of a comprehensive redistricting plan. Most recently, the SCSD closed Mount Marion Elementary School at the end of the 2021-22 school year.
OCSD Superintendent Victoria McLaren said her district is determined to address the issue of declining enrollment.
“The K-6 student population was restructured in the 2012-2013 school year,” McLaren said. “The (School) Board created a goal in the 2018-2019 school year to support the creation of a long-term plan. This work was interrupted by the pandemic, but the current Board has refocused on the need for a long-term plan and has been doing significant work during the current school year.”
Meanwhile, KCSD Superintendent Paul Padalino said his district isn’t likely to close another elementary school, but may experience another redistricting in the coming years, particularly as some of Kingston’s elementary schools are seeing increases in enrollment. There is also some speculation that a number of proposed residential and mixed-use developments in the district may lead to an increase in overall student enrollment, along with an influx of residents moving to the area from New York City during the early stages of the pandemic. Padalino said it was too early to tell.
“Just anecdotally, I think a lot of the people who moved here from downstate were people who did not have school-aged children yet,” he said. “We didn’t see a huge enrollment bump. We know the community saw a huge bump, creating the housing inventory issue that we have.”
Padalino added that the KCSD would welcome an influx of new students should they materialize.
“I was joking with someone the other day,” he said. “I was saying, ‘Five years ago I would stand in Uptown Kingston and would say, ‘I see a lot of people from Brooklyn.’ And now when I stand in Uptown, I say, ‘I see a lot of people from Brooklyn, and now they have a stroller.’”