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Declining student population affects area

TRI-COUNTY AREA--Over the past 20 years, area school districts have seen an overall decline in their student population. Several of these schools have seen declines exceeding 20 percent. Many area school officials attribute the cause for these decreases to several factors, including the lack of area jobs, and the poor economy.
Dundee Superintendent Kelly Houck said the district has seen an overall decrease in student population from 1,009 in 1996, to 887 in 2006, to 751 in 2016. This amounts to a 25.6 percent decrease in the last 20 years. Houck attributes this to several reasons, including the local job market and limited economic opportunities as the most significant of these factors.
"It is anticipated currently, that declining enrollment will continue to be an issue that districts will encounter," Houck said. "My hope is as the economy continues to rebound this will become less of an issue for districts."
As far as attempting to reverse this negative trend, Houck said the district needs to continue to build and improve their educational opportunities by creating an educational program that is "robust, innovative, and incredibly inviting." She said this program should not only attract new residents to the district, but also retain all of its current residents. Additionally, Houck said the district needs to help foster economic growth and development within the community.
Penn Yan has also seen a similar decrease in student population. The district had 2,166 students in 1996, 1,926 in 2006 and has 1,572 in 2016. This amounts for a 27.4 percent decrease in the last 20 years. Penn Yan Superintendent Howard Dennis attributes this to a lack of mid-range housing and local job opportunities along with a general trend toward smaller families and an increase in the number of Mennonite families in the community. Dennis added most school districts have seen some level of reduction in student population in New York State over this same timeframe.
"We will continue to monitor the levels and adjust our staffing and programming as appropriate," Dennis said. "We predict that our current incoming levels will continue in the near future."
To potentially reverse this negative trend, Dennis said the district will continue to "offer innovative programming," and "continue to market what makes us different and unique from other districts." He also said the district will partner with local groups like the Industrial Development Agency, Chamber of Commerce, and other groups to help market the area, while pushing for affordable mid-range housing.
In Schuyler County, Watkins Glen Superintendent Tom Phillips said the district has seen an overall decline in student population from 1,435 in 1996, to 1,296 in 2006, to 1,076 in 2016. This amounts for a 25 percent decrease in the last 20 years. Phillips attributes this to the economic downturn in upstate New York, along with the loss of manufacturing jobs and no replacement of real employment opportunities for those workers.
"As a district, I think Watkins Glen has done everything possible to adjust and reorganize," Phillips said. Some of the measures Phillips mentioned included closing the middle school, developing a single campus, sharing services with the county and village, and combining certain programs and transportation with Odessa-Montour. He said these were all a means of reducing costs while preserving program in the most efficient manner possible."
As far as attempting to reverse this negative trend, Phillips said the district will continue to develop programs that are innovative and challenge students to develop skills necessary for them to compete in the global marketplace. Additionally, he added school districts and all municipal governments must look at how they are organized and ask the question "Is the organization providing the best services for our constituents, or is there a different way to maintain or improve services while increasing efficiency?" Philips said the district must look at some type of regionalization and reorganization as a means of sustainability.
"I have asked this question since my arrival as superintendent 10 years ago: Why in a county of approximately 18,500 residents do we have eight towns, four villages and three school districts for nearly 2,000 students?" Phillips said. "I understand that each community holds dear the culture of who they are and their identity. The reality is the way in which we are currently organized is not sustainable. This is not necessarily a bad thing if we can all come together to think of what could be versus what is. There is no debating that the demographics are changing so let's use this data to help us create a vision that not only provides us sustainability but also affords us the opportunity to use our resources in a regional effort to maintain and improve our quality of living and opportunity for our children."
Odessa-Montour has also seen a similar decrease in student population. While Superintendent Chris Wood was unable to provide exact numbers, he noted he is confident their enrollment has gone down. He attributes this to the economy, adding many of the businesses and farms that once populated Odessa are no longer in operation.
"Over the past six years we have seen our enrollment level off," Wood said. "In other words, we have not seen a steady decrease. We might be up five students or down five students. Our trends will depend on the economy and local job opportunities."
To potentially reverse this trend, Wood said Odessa-Montour will continue to build academic opportunities for students.
"If you can be a small district that gives opportunities that we do, whether it be our 60-plus college credits, ample extra-curricular activities, after school programming and great supports kindergarten through grade 12, I think that will attract people to the district," Wood said. "It won't push our numbers back to where they were 20 years ago, but it's a quality only a small school like O-M has."
Hammondsport Superintendent Kyle Bower was contacted but did not respond by press time.

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