As the numbers roll in each year, the headlines are practically the same: Area school enrollment is down once again. But the reasons behind declining student populations vary.
While public chatter tends to turn blame to competitive educational alternatives like vocational and charter schools, a recent analysis shows a decline in student enrollment may actually be the result of something out of a school district’s control.
The birth rate in Massachusetts is declining, leading to smaller incoming classes that have resulted in a 10-year slump in public schools.
Of area schools, Mansfield Public Schools have been hit the hardest.
A Sun Chronicle review of school enrollment numbers from the state education department shows from 2006-2007 to 2015-2016, the number of students in Mansfield Public Schools fell by 816. But, that change largely mirrors a decline in the total student-age population in Mansfield during that timeframe, which fell by 717 students over 10 years.
Public discourse tends to suggest that a decline in student enrollment means families are leaving public schools for other modes of education, namely charter schools or vocational training programs.
In fact, state numbers show this might not be the case.
The number of Mansfield students enrolled in vocational or charter schools over the last 10 years has remained pretty steady. Since 2006, the district has seen 20 more students choosing a vocational program over public education, while numbers for charter schools floated around 150 students in available data. That number dipped in 2015 to 114 students.
Instead, the decline in enrollment numbers aligns with a decline in the state and local birth rates.
State birth-rate data from 1989 to 2010 shows a gradual decline in the number of children born each year statewide, reaching a peak of 91,300 in 1989 and hitting a low of 72,800 in 2010. Those birth years reflect school-age children receiving an education between the years 2006 and 2016.
Mansfield numbers from about the same time period mirror that trend.
About 290 children were born in 1990, Mansfield records show, and while that number fluctuated to a high of 380 children in a single year in 2000, the number of children born in Mansfield dipped to 198 in 2010.
And, those numbers keep heading south. About 180 children were born in Mansfield in 2016. In 2015, the most recent state data available, the state birth rate dropped to 71,400 children.
Mansfield School Superintendent Teresa Murphy said the trend is one her district is keeping an eye on.
“It varies. One year we decreased by 15, but one year it was high around 118 students,” she said.
A consultation with the New England School Development Council keyed the district in on what to look for moving forward. An improved economy, new buildings and new home construction and sales will filter families — and kids — back into the district, Murphy said.
“We’ve been seeing some of that,” she said, with new apartments going in next to the train station and some construction downtown.
“We’re hopeful that the enrollment decline may be changing somewhat.”
In the meantime, the district is taking steps to accommodate fewer students.
Across the board
But it’s important for the public to realize that a decline in the number of students is spread thin across all grades, Murphy said. Although the district might see a decline in 100 students one year, that doesn’t mean those numbers will work out perfectly grade-wise, so the district can’t necessarily just eliminate two classrooms to handle the loss.
After 10 years, however, those losses are translating to real changes, Murphy said. In recent years the district has eliminated classrooms at the elementary level and decreased one team from each grade at the middle school.
“As a school department and town we’re looking at the trends and patterns so we can optimize school district proposals moving forward,” Murphy said.
But area-wide, fewer births could be for many reasons.
For one, more women are waiting longer to have their first child. The average age when a woman first gives birth is 26, national data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows. That is up from 25 in 2000, 24 in 1990 and 22 1/2 in 1980.
And, young people without families are settling closer to cities, where jobs are bustling and the character of lively urban settings keep them entertained.
Jeff Wulson, acting commissioner of elementary and secondary education for Massachusetts, told The Associated Press that may be the reason school enrollment numbers have remained steady in places like Boston, but have dipped elsewhere throughout the state. As young people settle closer to cities and start their early families there, enrollment numbers remain healthy.
Whatever the reason, Mansfield is not the only area town feeling the effects of lower enrollment.
Norton Public Schools also saw a decline in 538 students in the public school system over the last 10 years, mirroring a 682 decline in the total number of students living in Norton.
Seekonk schools saw a decline of 226 students in public schools, and 270 overall.
Foxboro mirrored those results, with 268 fewer students in the public school system and a decline of 294 in the total number of Foxboro students.
North Attleboro saw a 359 drop in the number of students in its schools, with 101 fewer students living in North Attleboro total.
And, Attleboro schools saw a decline of 194 public school students between 2007 and 2016, with 31 fewer students in Attleboro altogether.