NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Schools in Massachusetts’ South Coast region are getting smaller.

Enrollment has dropped in nearly all of the region’s municipal school districts — non-vocational, non-charter districts — over the last decade. Several have seen population declines approaching one-quarter or more.

While public discourse tends to blame that loss on vocational and charter schools, Acting Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeff Wulfson says the full picture is much broader.

Jobs in the innovation economy are increasingly concentrated in urban areas, he said. That’s why enrollment is steady or rising around Boston, but dropping in smaller suburban and rural districts, especially in Western Massachusetts.

Wulfson said he’s less familiar with the South Coast, but the same could be happening here.

“This is really almost a tale of two states,” he said. “Anything west of Worcester is almost in a free fall.”

The birth rate is down slightly, but immigration is up slightly, he said; the tale is about who goes where.

Locally, Wareham has seen the biggest drop over the last 20 years, followed by Mattapoisett, Middleboro, and Westport.

Since 1997, Wareham’s enrollment has fallen 30 percent. Most of that change — 26 percent — happened in the last decade.

State data show about 500 fewer school-age children live in Wareham than a decade ago, and of those who do, more go to vocational schools, out-of-district public schools (typically via school choice), private and parochial schools, special education programs, and charter schools.

Kimberly Shaver-Hood, superintendent of the Wareham schools, said Wareham High School is introducing the International Baccalaureate program this fall, and she will look at whether it affects the number of incoming or outgoing school choice students.

“Students and parents certainly are looking at options,” she said.

When a district sends or receives a school-choice student, up to $5,000 in public tuition money follows the student.

Other South Coast districts where enrollment has fallen more than 10 percent since 1997 include Mattapoisett, at 23 percent; Middleboro, 22 percent; Westport, 20 percent; Fall River, 17 percent; and New Bedford, 14 percent.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Old Rochester Regional School District is an outlier, gaining 19 percent over 20 years and holding steady in the last decade.

Douglas White Jr., superintendent, said new housing developments in Marion and Rochester have brought new families to the district and the district’s class sizes and programming have also helped.

“We’re fortunate to be able to provide high-quality education to all our students,” he said.

Still, ORR is not immune to students opting for private, parochial, or other schools sometime before high school, he said.

In the Freetown-Lakeville district, which became fully regional in 2011, the schools have lost 15 percent of their students since 2007, but only 5 percent over 20 years.

Superintendent Richard Medeiros pointed to the housing market. Not many families seem to be building or buying homes, he said. But about 46 more students will enter Apponequet Regional High School this fall than last, and he predicts the decline will begin leveling off.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said.

The school hired an additional art teacher last year and has expanded Advanced Placement programs to help attract and retain students.

“We seem to be seeing a trend of more of our students staying in the district, and we’re excited about that,” he said.

Barry Rabinovitch, a retired Wareham superintendent who now works part-time for the New Bedford schools shepherding construction projects, echoed the sense that jobs and housing drive decisions about where families send their children to school.

“Something that’s occurred over the last 10 years is that young families move to places where there is work,” he said.

And, as Wulfson points out, manufacturing jobs are no longer buttressing the population of smaller communities the way they once did.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education tracks, by town of residence, the type of school each child attends, in the School Attending Children Report. In the case of Wareham, it shows that 193 children opted for out-of-district public schools in 2016, the most recent year available, compared to 24 a decade earlier. More students also chose vocational and private schools, and more attend regional special-education programs.

The advent of charter schools has ramped up competition. Atlantis Charter School in Fall River has grown exponentially, adding a middle school and then a high school.

Global Learning Charter Public School in New Bedford, which has served grades 5 through 12 since its inception, has grown by 32 percent in a decade. It runs an admissions lottery and has a waiting list hundreds long, according to Adonis Ferreira, director of student, family, and community life.

“What parents are looking for, and what they have communicated to us, is a good education in a safe and a good environment,” he said.

He said some parents are well informed about charter schools and their strengths, while others know little about charters but have heard good things about Global. The school offers project-based learning and after-school academic support and enrichment, he said.

Most of the region’s vocational schools grew quickly in the early 2000s, and modestly in the last 10 years. The resurgence of vocational schools stems from academic pressure from the state’s MCAS exams, Rabinovitch said.

“After being embarrassed by the scores in the media, vocational education became smarter, and they have ways of screening their population coming in,” he said.

That’s a complaint New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell makes. He says vocational admissions policies are “skewed very heavily” toward selecting the best-performing, best-behaved, and best-attending students. State law allows them that luxury, which community-based schools don’t have.

Vocational schools have also stepped up their academic quality since the MCAS began in the 1990s, according to James O’Brien, superintendent-director of Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School.

“Our success didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “A long time ago, we were chasing for kids.”

The biggest enrollment jumps at local vocational schools over the last 20 years were at Bristol-Plymouth Regional Technical School, 67 percent; Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School, 44 percent; Bristol County Agricultural High School, 37 percent; and Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech, 23 percent.

Part of the appeal of vocational schools is graduates’ ability to go right into a trade without college debt, or go to college if they choose that route, said Roger Forget, assistant superintendent and principal at Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School. He said Upper Cape instills in students a work ethic that starts the moment they compete to get into popular shops, and continues through the time when they do a co-op in a their field before graduation.

“It’s right where students are today,” he said.

Traditional high schools, for their part, argue that they offer strong and diverse academic programs. At New Bedford High School, for example, at least one graduate has been accepted to Harvard University every year since 2013.

At all public K-12 schools statewide, including vocational and charter schools, enrollment is up a negligible amount — 2 percent — since 1997. Thus, “you’ve got more schools competing for the same number of kids,” Wulfson said.

The acting commissioner said people think telecommuting has made geography less important, but in some parts of Western Massachusetts, they don’t have high-speed Internet. Some districts have fewer than 10 students in a grade.

The state has done a number of things to encourage districts to share resources, but it’s an uphill battle because of the tradition of local control in Massachusetts, he said. Some districts are struggling to support too many facilities for today’s population, but they can’t close a half-empty building unless they have space for the students elsewhere.

“There’s no one-size-fits all solution, but at some point it’s going to be a crisis,” he said.

Similar things are happening at Catholic schools, Wulfson said. Right now, he doesn’t see anything that will reverse the long-term trend.

“There’s no question it’s a very challenging problem. It’s one of the most frustrating problems I’ve seen in my years here,” he said.


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Information from: The (New Bedford, Mass.) Standard-Times, http://www.southcoasttoday.com