Enrollment decline on the rise: FASD student population decreasing

Raylen Welling, Business Manager

Freedom Area School District has been suffering from enrollment decline in recent years and is predicted to continue to see a drop in numbers. While the new construction project has left many hopeful for growth in the district, statistics from recent years and projections for the future leave room for concern.

“Enrollment in the district is most definitely declining,” Superintendent Dr. Jeffery Fuller said.

In the 2010-2011 school year, the district total was 1,604 students. At the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year there were 1,444 students enrolled in the district. That is a decrease of more than 160 students in 5 years. The number is even smaller now as some students are no longer enrolled for this school year.

“A 160-student decline across the district is a significant impact. It’s 10 percent of our population. If we lose 10 percent of our population, there won’t necessarily be a 10 percent corresponding reduction in staff and services, but there likely will be some sort of reduction in staff,” Fuller said.

“There is some impact from students going to charter schools,” Fuller said.
According to Fuller and projected enrollment numbers, enrollment is projected to continue to decline, and in 5 years, the district will suffer approximately another 80-student decline.

At press time, the number of students enrolled for kindergarten in the 2015-2016 school year was around 80. In the 2010-2011 term, 115 kindergarten students were enrolled. This shows that the problem is not only coming from students moving toward other options, but also that the district itself isn’t bringing in as many students.

There are hopes that the new elementary school and one campus set-up of the district will be a draw for new students, but not all problems stem from the school district. Many factors to consider also come from the surrounding communities that make up the district.

“I think by doing what we’re doing now, with the consolidation and bringing everybody onto campus, it sets us up in a better way to be able to maintain our programs and services. And to share services down into the elementary program so that we can start to look at additional opportunities and how we can do things differently for kids,” Fuller said.

New schools and opportunities could also bring new interest to the district.

“I think the new school is going to be a selling point or a draw for what’s going on,” Fuller said.

Cranberry Township, which is part of the Seneca Valley School District, borders New Sewickley Township, but has a much higher population density. In fact, new townhouses are currently being constructed in Cranberry Township just before the border of New Sewickley. Seeing all of this construction makes one wonder why there isn’t as much development occurring in New Sewickley.

“I think part of the reason is that in Cranberry Township and Zelienople, for the most part, there are municipal services there in terms of city water and city sewage that we don’t have in the vast majority of New Sewickley Township… So I think that has a significant impact on why the population is staying east of the county line, but I don’t know that for a fact,” Fuller said.

While municipal services and different benefits available to those living in Cranberry Township may cause people to choose to move there, their growing population should not be our biggest concern. The true problem is the population decrease in this area.

“I think that, by and large, our population is decreasing in this area as people move away to find jobs and things like that. As the economy starts to come back in Beaver County and Western Pennsylvania, which it is, I think those numbers will start to turn around some. But, for now we are projecting a continued decline,” Fuller said.

According to Fuller, a continuous decline in student enrollment would lead not only to a possible reduction in staff, but also in the programs that are offered by the district.

One concern often brought up with enrollment decline is the possibility of a merger. School mergers are not unfamiliar to Beaver County residents, who saw this happen in 2009 when Center and Monaca merged to become Central Valley. In years past, discussions to combat Freedom’s enrollment decline included redistricting by possibly absorbing the Economy Borough or merging with neighboring Rochester. However, Fuller does not believe there will be a viable solution like this in the near future.

“I don’t anticipate [a merger] happening, but is it possible? Sure, anything is possible,” Fuller said.