The Rockland public schools expect to enroll about 70 more students this fall than last year, a small victory for a district that, like many of its neighbors, lost pupils by double-digit percentage points over the last decade. In the suburbs south of Boston, roughly two-thirds of the public school districts have seen enrollment slip.
Rockland’s school superintendent, John Retchless, credits a new middle school and renovated high school with prompting families to stay in the system instead of choosing private or parochial schools, or sending their children to another public school through the Massachusetts school choice or charter programs.
“Essentially we have two brand-new schools,” he said. “What we have is vastly superior to three years ago.”
For the state as a whole, a small turnaround may be on the horizon, as statewide enrollment rose by 0.1 percent for the school year that ended last spring. But the dominant trend has been downward, slowly but steadily, with public school enrollment dropping by a fraction of a point every year from 2004 to 2012.
According to data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, over the last decade or so (from 2002-2003 to the school year that just ended), Rockland saw its student population drop 23 percent; Norton, 18 percent; Wareham, 21 percent; Hull, 22 percent; and Randolph, 27 percent. Statewide, enrollment dropped 3.6 percent in the same period.
In a few cases, the data can be deceiving, as with the Silver Lake Regional School District. Much of the 36 percent decline can be attributed to the town of Pembroke withdrawing from the regional district, according to Silver Lake Superintendent John Tuffy.
Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton remain in the district, and enrollment among students from those towns has actually increased slightly since 2004, Tuffy said.
In the Freetown-Lakeville Regional School District, what appears to be a jump in population of 64 percent comes from regionalizing the elementary schools. The district previously included only the middle and high schools.
But overall, public school populations have been getting smaller.
Janice Rotella, curriculum director for the Wareham schools, identified a number of contributing factors, particularly the housing market. Young families have been less able to afford homes or get mortgages since the downturn about five years ago, she said.
Home construction once forged ahead at a rapid pace on the west side of town, but no more, Rotella said. And families who live in apartments are more likely to move and change school districts.
The economy has also hurt school budgets, leading some parents to opt for alternatives, including not only private and parochial schools, but also charter and technical schools.
Rotella said the new superintendent, Kimberly Shaver-Hood, is “looking at ways of pushing the Wareham schools forward,” and improving the community’s perception of the school system, in order to attract more families.
Rockland invested $2 million in technology for the middle and high schools, Retchless said, and began tuition-based full-day kindergarten last year. He also believes the town is becoming more attractive to young families, who can find starter homes that are less expensive than in some of the other Boston suburbs.
When it has lost students, the district lost them mainly because of demographics — families aging out of the system but not moving out of town — rather than to other schools, he said.
Rockland has lost about 400 students since 2005. Although some did choose other schools, “there was no flight from the district,” he said.
Norton Superintendent Joseph Baeta, who started in the position this summer after the town hired him away from Holbrook, said Norton has 180 students going to charter schools, but the number leaving for charters has slowed.
He wants to talk to the families opting for charter schools to see what the community schools could be doing better.
As far as other factors affecting Norton’s enrollment, Baeta cited declining birth rates, school budget cuts, and the housing market.
Charter schools south of Boston grew significantly over the last decade, in large part because they were new and adding grades. Rising Tide Charter Public School in Plymouth, for example, was founded in 1998 with grades 5 through 7, added eighth grade the following year, and is now expanding into the high school grades, with its first seniors expected to graduate in 2015.
Rising Tide’s enrollment through Grade 8 has grown 60 percent in the last decade, according to state data.
Michael O’Keefe, Rising Tide’s assistant head of school, said the school has about 250 applicants for 88 seats in the incoming fifth grade. Most students live in Plymouth, but others come from Carver, Kingston, Middleborough, and Wareham, and occasionally farther afield.
Asked what families like about charters, he said each one is different, but Rising Tide offers a small-school environment, high expectations, and a safe atmosphere. Also, public perception of charters has improved. “It feels different than maybe even 10 years ago, just in the public discourse,” he said.
O’Keefe also said charter schools fill a need for public alternatives, especially at the elementary level.
High schoolers have long had vocational and technical schools as an alternative. Most of those schools south of Boston have fared well in enrollment over the last decade.
State data show enrollment increases of 48 percent at Bristol-Plymouth Regional Technical School, 16 percent at Norfolk County Agricultural High School, 7 percent at Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School, 12 percent at South Shore Vocational Technical High School, and 8 percent at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical.
Richard Gross, superintendent at Bristol-Plymouth, said that in a weak economy, families gravitate toward tangible skills their children can use to make a living.
That dynamic, combined with an industry-informed curriculum and increased emphasis on postsecondary preparation, has made vocational education very appealing, he said. About 70 percent of Bristol-Plymouth graduates continue their education.
“They’re really getting the best of both worlds here,” he said. “It’s not your grandfather’s vocational education anymore.”
State records show that most students who transfer out of a public school are headed to another public institution of some kind. In the last school year, they were more than five times as likely to move to another public school as to a private one.