School enrollments predicted to begin rising next year

As an old proverb says, nothing is permanent except change. Less than 10 years ago, enrollment in Harvard’s schools was declining, and in 2012 a special committee wrote a report projecting that a “modest but steady” decrease would continue for a decade. But at its Oct. 29 meeting, the School Committee heard new projections, indicating the decline may be at an end, and enrollments may begin to rise again as soon as next year.

In one way, the 2012 Enrollment and Capacity Report, produced by the Declining Enrollment Committee and then-Superintendent Joe Connelly, has been remarkably accurate. The decline has continued year by year, with enrollment this fall 167 fewer students than in 2012.

However, the decline has been less steep than the 2012 report predicted. Had those projections been on target, Harvard would have 963 students in grades K to 12 now. The actual enrollment, according to the official Oct. 1 count, is 1,031 students. (That number includes 55 students who attend through the School Choice program, and the 2012 report also included Choice students.) So the Harvard schools have 68 more students this year than the report predicted.

New projections for the years 2020 through 2028 show a gradual increase in enrollment, slowly rising to about 1,200 students—just about the same number as attended in 2012 (see graph below).

The new numbers, prepared by School Committee member SusanMary Redinger, used the same methodology as the 2012 study, which she has been updating each year so the district can plan accordingly. The projections rely on the “Cohort Survival Method” for predicting school enrollments. That method starts with the number of babies born in Harvard and looks ahead five years, to when those children scamper off to kindergarten. Using past statistics for the number of children who move into town or leave each year, the method then predicts how many students from each grade will turn up—that is, “survive”—for the next grade the following September.

School enrollments have declined over the past decade, although less steeply than a 2012 study predicted. A new projection suggests enrollments may rise again over the next few years. (Because of space limitations, the graph shows only the upper tier of enrollments, between 900 and 1,300 students, making enrollments look more volatile than they really are.) Source: Harvard Public Schools and School Committee

In reporting the projections to the School Committee, Redinger pointed out that, for the past several years, the district has been expecting the number of students from Devens to increase as new housing was built there. But the building program has proved slower than planned. So Redinger said she did not factor any sudden upsurge in Devens enrollments into the new projections.

Explaining the increasing accuracy of the projections, School Committee Chair John Ruark wrote in an email to the Press, “[O]ur projections for enrollment this year have been steadily increasing. In 2013 we projected 960 for this current year; in 2016 1,009; and last year we projected 1,025. Clearly the further out the projection, the less information we have and the worse the forecast is, in terms of forecast error, but it is interesting that in this case, at least, the forecast continued to rise, rather than vary above and below the final numbers. It does appear that after a decline in enrollment we are seeing a potential increase on the horizon. We’ll know in a few years whether this 2019-2020 year is the low point or not.”

The reasons for the earlier decline and now for the expected rise in enrollment are the same: birth rates and housing sales. While the number of babies born in Harvard in any given year bobs around a lot, it was only in the low 20s for most years from 2008 to 2013. But it rose to the low 30s from 2014 to this year. Not exactly a new baby boom, but an increase.

The real estate market is even more volatile than the birth rate. Sales of existing houses in Harvard from 1999 to 2005 were usually between 70 and 80 a year, bringing in new families who often had school-age children. Then, with the real estate bubble and the recession of 2008, sales fell into the 50-to-60-a-year range until 2012. But since 2012 housing sales—like birth numbers—have trended back up. Between 2013 and 2018, housing sales averaged 70 per year.

In the years from 2006 to 2012, the drop in enrollments hit the elementary school first, with the classes entering school much smaller than those leaving as high school graduates. The reversal of the trend will also appear first in the elementary grades. As Superintendent Linda Dwight pointed out last year, quite a few families seem to be moving to Harvard when their children reach second grade. From first grade to eighth grade, the number of students in a class tends to grow a little almost every year. Then there’s often a dropoff of about 4% at ninth grade, when some students leave for other schools—either private or public.

School Committee members asked Dwight if rising enrollments threatened to make the new Hildreth Elementary School crowded almost before it opens. But Dwight said the school was designed with enough room to keep class sizes significantly lower than the Massachusetts School Building Authority usually permits; the MSBA accepted that variation to its usual requirements when it approved the elementary school. So there would be room for more students in the building. And the MSBA also requires schools to have a plan for expansion when it eventually becomes necessary. Harvard’s new school could add several more classrooms on its west side.

Harvard’s slowly declining enrollment was similar to that of Massachusetts as a whole from 2012 to 2017. But statewide enrollment figures showed a sharp uptick in 2018, which may be an indicator of what Harvard can expect in the next few years.

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