The Wellesley School Committee last week heard the official Enrollment Report presentation (see embedded below) from Cindy Mahr, Assistant Superintendent, Finance and Operations, who recounted the story of the district’s declining enrollment over the past decade. Fewer students to educate has largely driven the move to drop from seven elementary schools to six (Upham closes at the end of 2024. Hardy and Hunnewell elementary schools are currently being rebuilt). (View Wellesley Media recording of Nov. 1 meeting.)
The annual Enrollment Report meets a state requirement to report numbers as of Oct. 1. Before that date, numbers are still very much in flux, though Wellesley did share a preliminary report at the start of the school year. It’s inevitable that some students slide in just at the bell, while others take their talents elsewhere. A teacher’s Aug. 30 attendance list can look very different in several weeks’ time, but the rosters eventually tell the true story of who’s decided to settle in for the year.
Overall, the report reflected that the total of K-12 students as of Oct. 1 last year was 4,069, while the total for this year is 3,995, a reduction of 74 students. A point of pride for Mahr—her projections for this year called for overall enrollment at 3,992 students. So off by three, a stat that had School Committee members marveling at her crystal ball-like abilities.
Much discussed was the topic of elementary enrollment, which has been declining over time. In 2009 there were 2,480 K-5 students in the district. This year Wellesley is at 1,726, a drop of 754 students since 2009. Next year’s projection says that number will drop further, down to 1,700 K-5 kids. This decrease at the elementary level swims its way upstream to the middle and high schools, of course. “When we look at the high school, our declines at the elementary level over the last decade are really starting to impact both the middle school and high school,” Mahr said. “When you’re exiting a large 12th grade class and bringing in a smaller grade 9 class, that is really going to have significant impacts on the building.”
Those potential impacts were not discussed during this meeting, but it seems likely that with fewer students to teach, the natural attrition rate of teachers may not match up with lower enrollment numbers. That could lead to layoffs, but that is not a topic that’s been publicly broached yet.
Mahr says the biggest challenge in enrollment projection is developing a model that takes seven elementary schools and tries to project for six schools going forward. The district this year had a demographer double-check Wellesley’s work on projecting the numbers. Both use what’s called a cohort survival methodology. Sounds like something out of the Hunger Games, but it’s actually just a way of projecting how many kids will stick around from kindergarten all the way through grade 12. Data is collected on how many first graders stay with Wellesley to second grade. Using that information, a ratio is developed and then applied to current enrollment.
New housing developments in town either already open (The Nines near Fiske Elementary School) or moving fast toward that goal (Terrazza and Bristol on Linden Street and Weston Road respectively) are among the factors contributing to some increases.
Private School numbers
An increase in students attending private schools hews closely with the pandemic years. Private schools, quicker to reopen to in-person learning than public schools, were also quick to scoop up Wellesley families fleeing an online classroom experience. Numbers of Wellesley students attending private or parochial schools remained steady at 20% of the total school population since 2013 and before, but started creeping up in 2021. Private school attendees currently represent more than a quarter of school-aged Wellesley students.
Drops across the board
Across the public school system, all levels have seen declines since FY20, and the elementary schools were seeing declines before that, in 2008-2009. Because of that, the district is now starting to see the middle and high school enrollment shrink.
Going forward, the high school has the greatest change projected. Expect enrollment to fall by 59 students from 1,350 to 1,291. By 2027-2028, a total reduction of 232 students is expected at WHS.
The middle school projections tell a similar story. That population of 919 students is expected to drop by 19 next year. It is estimated that the decrease in numbers will not begin to level off (or perhaps experience a slight rise) until 2028.