For inner suburbs, a surge in young students

A meeting  to discuss school overcrowding in Brookline drew a large turnout last month.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File
A meeting to discuss school overcrowding in Brookline drew a large turnout last month.

Philip Kramer cannot say enough good things about Brookline — the convenience of being able to walk and bike nearly everywhere, the public transportation, the vibrancy of Coolidge Corner, and, particularly, the public schools.

“Unless you want a much more suburban or exurban experience, this is an incredibly attractive place,” said Kramer, an architect whose 11-year-old daughter attends Brookline’s Pierce School. “That’s why I’m here.”

He is in plenty of company. A surge in school enrollment — particularly at the lower grades — has Brookline scrambling for space, with a key panel urging last week that the town expand its high school and some of its kindergarten-through-Grade 8 schools, with the estimated cost ranging from $150 million to $300 million.


But it is not just Brookline that is attracting young families. Several communities just outside Boston are experiencing an enrollment boom at the elementary level that is straining the limits of both classrooms and budgets. Conversely, children appear to be draining out of numerous suburban districts farther from the city.

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Nineteen out of 49 area school districts saw their K-5 enrollments rise over the last decade, according to a Globe analysis of data from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Brookline led the pack in those early grades, but there were also double-digit increases in Arlington, Belmont, Needham, Newton, Waltham, Watertown, and Wellesley.

Meanwhile, K-5 enrollment fell in the remaining 30 local districts, with the steepest drop in Boxborough, followed by Carlisle, Medway, Groton-Dunstable Regional, Norfolk, Southborough, and Medfield. Statewide, K-5 enrollment slipped 4.7 percent between 2002-03 and the school year that ended this spring.

The shifts in enrollment were in many cases less pronounced when viewed across all grade levels, but the K-5 numbers provide a window into what school systems can expect — and prepare for — down the line.

In Brookline, for example, enrollment for the entire system, kindergarten through high school, went from 5,828 to 6,830 over the decade, an increase of 17.2 percent. But for grades K-5 alone, the jump was nearly 38 percent.


In Newton, enrollment grew 7.8 percent across all grade levels, but was up 16.5 percent in the elementary schools.

“We can’t say why people stay and why people move,” said Brigid Bieber, chairwoman of the School Committee in Boxborough, where residents recently decided to extend the regional school arrangement with Acton to include the neighboring towns’ elementary students.

Boxborough’s K-5 enrollment fell 32.6 percent over the decade, while Acton’s slipped just 4.2 percent, leaving its elementary system tight on space. (The figures for sixth grade were not counted in the Globe analysis.)

While there is no definitive answer as to why some schools are bursting at the seams while other populations are contracting, many officials and parents have their theories. In the outer suburbs, the consensus seems to be the economy’s effect on the housing market and the area’s demographics.

“The natural aging of the population certainly has a big impact,” said Bieber, recalling that when her son, now 21, was in elementary school in Boxborough, there were well over 600 students, compared with 440 in prekindergarten through Grade 6 this spring. About 400 students are expected when classes start in a few weeks, she said.


When Bieber moved to town about 20 years ago, one of the primary considerations was the school district.

“We’ve been really, really happy here,” she said. “It’s a great quality of life, very engaged citizens.”

The Norfolk schools, which continue through Grade 6 before students move to the King Philip Regional School District, have also seen their enrollment decline. However, Superintendent Ingrid Allardi noted an interesting wrinkle — and a potential reversal of the trend: The new school year will bring a spike in kindergarten enrollment, from 95 last fall to 133.

“It’s a new bubble starting at kindergarten that will go up through the grades,” she said.

The recent decline, Allardi said, was not because Norfolk’s public schools were losing students to other districts, or charter or private schools.

“It’s more a fact of housing costs and not a lot of new families moving in,” she said. “It’s an expensive community, and with the economy the way that it is, there’s not a lot of property moving.”

Experts back up her observations. Census figures show that for the first time in two decades, the annual growth rate in US cities and surrounding urban areas has surpassed that of the suburbs.

According to William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, between 2000 and 2010, city populations grew an average of just 0.42 percent annually, compared with 1.38 percent in the suburbs; by last year, however, that flipped to 1.12 percent growth in cities and 0.97 percent in suburbs.

“Nationwide, there’s a huge return-to-the-cities movement,” said Kramer, the architect whose daughter attends school in Brookline.

Betsy DeWitt, chairwoman of Brookline’s Board of Selectmen, agreed about the appeal of the community’s location next to Boston, and also pointed to its supportive environment for families, including numerous day-care, preschool, and extended-day programs.

And, she said, a generational turnover is taking place. With the town pretty well built out, and not much new residential development being proposed, the trend seems to be empty-nesters creating vacancies and families with children filling them.

The same goes for Belmont, which has seen enrollment in its K-4 schools rise from 1,396 in the 2002-2003 school year to 1,705 in 2012-2013, and expects another increase in the fall.

School Committee chairwoman Laurie Graham said Belmont has a “really strong school system that brings a lot of people in,” and cited its “phenomenal” arts programs. Still, it comes at a price: The district has increased or implemented fees for arts activities, busing, and sports. And because there is not much of a business tax base, residents “pay higher taxes to live here,” she said.

Also, Graham said, there is a pretty significant number of parents who have moved their children from private to the town’s public schools.

“We base that on the economy,” she said.

But then there is a persistent question: What to do to accommodate the significant gains — or, in turn, to adapt to heavy losses.

In Boxborough’s case, it has meant a significant change: In June, Boxborough and Acton voted to form a regional system covering from kindergarten to Grade 12, to take effect next July 1; they already share regional junior high and high schools, starting in Grade 7.

Boxborough has also decreased the number of teachers per grade, and cut back on art, music, library, and gym time, which has meant reducing staff positions to less than full time, according to Bieber.

She said there are many positives to regionalization, including not only cost savings, but the ability to share resources.

Brookline, meanwhile, is struggling with how to address its soaring enrollment. With the bulk of the increase in the early grades, the town anticipates the growth will continue as the students advance through the system.

The town is establishing a committee to study raising taxes through a Proposition 2½ override, to help pay for new or expanded schools.

“The major public test is, what is it going to cost, and will voters support it?” said DeWitt.

Belmont, for its part, is considering redistricting to balance enrollments across the schools, Graham said, although she stressed, “that’s not something you can take on very lightly.”

Ultimately, most agreed that it’s impossible to say whether current trends — up or down — will continue.

“You can’t predict how many kids people are going to have,” said Graham. “And you can’t predict where people are going to live.”

Globe correspondent Shandana Mufti contributed to this report. Taryn Plumb can be reached at taryn.plumb@gmail.com.