This is the first installment of a three-part series.
When Kathy Wolf and her husband, David, graduated from Penn Hills High School in the 1970s, there were about 1,200 students in each of their graduating classes.
But when their son Nicholas walked across the football field to collect his diploma in June, there were just 298 students.
With a few exceptions, school districts throughout Western Pennsylvania are educating fewer students than they did even a decade ago.
In the 43 school districts in Allegheny County, enrollment loss averaged 13.3 percent from fall 2004 to fall 2013. With the school year just starting, it’s too early for figures for this year.
Sixty percent of the districts have had double-digit declines in that period, including Pittsburgh with 25 percent. Only three have grown significantly: South Fayette, Avonworth and Pine-Richland.
About half of the county’s school districts have closed schools, consolidated schools, redistricted or changed grade levels within buildings in the past decade.
There are no easy solutions as school boards look for cuts that can help balance increasingly tight budgets, older school buildings require costly renovations, and demand increases for student opportunities ranging from the latest technology to an array of high-level courses.
“I remember [former Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent] Mark Roosevelt saying managing decline is one of the hardest things you can do,” said Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane.
Mr. Roosevelt presided over the closing of more than 20 schools in 2006. Last year, Mrs. Lane proposed closing the then 110-student Pittsburgh Woolslair K-5 on the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville border this fall, but she couldn’t win support from a new board installed in December.
“Even if the school doesn’t have many children in it, there’s still a strong community,” said Mrs. Lane.
Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said school districts are trying to save money on buildings so they can spend it on programs that engage students.
“Sometimes you have to close buildings in order to do that because that will gain you some dollars. That’s what’s hard on the community....
“They know what school was for them. Often, they want school to be the same for their children and their children’s children. There’s a lot of tradition in the Pittsburgh region that does make change very difficult.”
Trend toward consolidation
One trend is consolidation, often coupled with school closings.
This can result in fewer neighborhood elementary schools — such as in the North Hills School District, which went from seven to four.
Or it can lead to centralized schools — such as in Penn Hills, which about a decade ago had six elementary schools and this fall opened one new elementary school to serve all of the district’s K-5 students. It has almost 1,400 students.
In the North Hills where enrollment fell 12 percent over the decade, W. David Hall, director of finance and operations, said the district saved $1.7 million in 2011-12, the first full year after three school closings. The savings, which continue year after year, came largely from staffing costs.
Instead of two larger and five smaller elementary schools, North Hills has four comparably sized, renovated elementary schools where the district can offer similar academic opportunities, better balance class sizes and have room for full-day kindergarten as well as separate spaces for art, music and library.
“You just can’t do a lot of things in a 200-student school as in a 500-to-600 student school,” Mr. Hall said.
Even districts with stable or growing enrollments aren’t exempt from enrollment pressures.
North Allegheny — which had similar enrollments in fall 2004 and fall 2013 — considered but decided against closing Peebles Elementary.
North Allegheny, did, however, redistrict 151 elementary and middle school students to better balance enrollment.
North Allegheny superintendent Raymond Gualtieri said redistricting takes place about every seven years to adjust to changing enrollment patterns.
“We have [housing] developments that had a lot of kids at every bus stop 15 years ago and now there are not as many kids at the bus stops. All of those families had kids go through the system. They haven’t sold their house yet,” he said.
“In other areas, we have new developments going in and there are three tricycles in every driveway.”
The county’s fastest growing district, South Fayette, grew 45 percent since 2004. It still has a lot of undeveloped land, and growth is expected to continue, said Brian Tony, director of finance.
South Fayette didn’t have a neighborhood school tradition. Its four buildings — elementary, intermediate, middle and high schools — are on one campus that used to be farmland.
South Fayette is looking at renovating its high school, built in 2002, because it may not be large enough by 2016.
Superintendent Billie Rondinelli said, “I believe that parents are coming here because they want the quality of education we are providing for the students.”
South Fayette’s new intermediate building opened last fall. Both of the other growing districts also have added buildings, Avonworth’s new Primary Center opened last week, and Pine-Richland added Eden Hall Upper Elementary School in 2008.
Shrinking enrollment, growing choices
School districts face stiff competition for students.
“The region has so many school districts,” said Chris Briem, regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research. “The future for any school district really depends on whether or not it’s a competitive place for people choosing to live there.”
Homeschooling, which attracts about 1,000 students in Allegheny County, and nonpublic schools — both religious and private — long have been alternatives to public schools.
State figures show nonpublic schools in Allegheny County enrolled more than 23,000 elementary and secondary students in fall 2013, which was about 23.6 percent below the 2005 level. The decline was greater at the elementary than the secondary level.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh counts 20,000 students in its Catholic schools, about 80 percent of them in Allegheny County. Since fall 2004, its enrollment has fallen about 25 percent. The diocese now has 90 schools, 26 fewer than in 2004.
While smaller in number than nonpublic schools, growing competition from charter schools attracts not only students from districts but also dollars.
School districts must pay a fee set by the state for each resident who attends. Charter schools are public schools chartered by a district but operated by their own boards.
With 9,291 students living in Allegheny County attending bricks-and-mortar and cyber charter schools in 2013, charter enrollment has about doubled just since 2008.
The impact has hit some districts particularly hard, including Pittsburgh where so many students are enrolled in charter schools that the number is equal to about 15 percent of the district’s own total enrollment. The district expects to spend $54.9 million on charter schools this calendar year.
Five other districts have even larger percentages in charter schools, compared with their fall 2013 enrollments, including Wilkinsburg and Duquesne, each with more than 40 percent, and Woodland Hills, Sto-Rox and Penn Hills, each with more than 20 percent.
View the enrollment data below or click here to download the spreadsheet.
*Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education
**Does not include pre-K or vo-tech enrollment
“The expenses of running the district don’t go down because a student leaves,” said Wilkinsburg School Board president Ed Donovan.
In some other districts, fewer than 1 percent of students are in charter schools, including Brentwood, Hampton, Mt. Lebanon, Pine-Richland, South Fayette, South Park, and Upper St. Clair.
Elizabeth Forward School District may have made some inroads into winning students back.
It had 66 residents in charter schools in 2010-11 but counts just 23 this fall. The district has about 70 more students total than it expected this fall.
Elizabeth Forward has put particular emphasis on enhancing technology, including iPads for all students and a middle school “dream factory” which includes a robotics lab and 3-D printers. As many other districts did, it also started its own cyber school.
School closings painful
Perhaps the most painful way to address declining enrollment is closing schools.
“I’ve never seen a community that was actually in favor of closing a school,” said Mrs. Lane.
Pittsburgh Public Schools has closed dozens of schools over the years, sometimes reusing the building for another school.
Mrs. Lane, who hears complaints about school closings done a decade ago, said neighborhoods hate it and “don’t get over it. … It’s almost like the loss of a family member in some ways.”
Calling Woolslair, which now has 115 students, “the best case for a school closure” she’s ever seen, Mrs. Lane said, “Unless and until the board indicates to me they would entertain school closures, I will not be bringing any more forward.”
The district’s “Whole Child, Whole Community” report released in December called for closing, consolidating or reconfiguring five to 10 unnamed schools to save $3 million to $5 million a year.
Keystone Oaks, which lost 18 percent of its enrollment since 2004 and serves Castle Shannon, Dormont and Green Tree, went through a lengthy — but also unsuccessful — process to close schools.
Shortly after four new board members joined in December 2011, the new Keystone Oaks board overturned the old board’s decision to close two elementary schools, Aiken in Green Tree and Myrtle in Castle Shannon.
William Stropkaj, who became superintendent in 2012, favors keeping all three elementary schools — the third one is in Dormont — open.
“I’m all for the community schools. As long as we are able to do it, we will continue to do it. All indications are in the future we will be able to sustain that,” he said.
The smallest is Aiken, which has 177 students this fall.
Marian Randazzo, who served on the Keystone Oaks School Board from 1999 to 2013, said a school so small is too expensive.
“It’s unfair to the other two buildings,” she said.
When schools close, communities lose what often is an anchor in a neighborhood. The empty school is sold, demolished or left vacant for years.
James Richter, executive director of the Hazelwood Initiative, said loss of a school can be “devastating.”
In addition to the effect on families living in the community, he said, “From the perspective of economic development, it certainly makes it near impossible to try to recruit families to the community.”
Hazelwood was left without any school after Gladstone Middle closed in 2001, St. Stephen Catholic Elementary closed in 2005 and Burgwin K-8 closed in 2006.
The Hazelwood Initiative and others worked about five years to get a school in Hazelwood again.
Pittsburgh Public Schools sold the Burgwin building, and it reopened about two weeks ago as a Propel Charter School with 193 students in K-4, about a third from Hazelwood, a third from the rest of the city and a third from outside the city.
Lifelong Hazelwood resident Tina Loudermilk chose Propel for her second-grader. “I wanted her to go to school in her neighborhood,” she said.
School districts often start their long-term enrollment projections looking at birth rates.
In Allegheny County, the number of babies born in 2009 — the birth year of children entering kindergarten this fall — was about 9 percent smaller than in 1999, the birth year of children entering kindergarten in 2004. In Pittsburgh, it was about 11 percent smaller.
Some areas have additional special circumstances as well.
In recent years, Pittsburgh has lost some students because the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh demolished some family housing, in some cases replacing it with fewer units.
Citywide, the number of family public housing units fell by 19 percent — nearly 500 units — from 2004 to 2014.
Overall, Mr. Briem said the region is still feeling the impact of the loss of young adults — and their future families — as they left seeking jobs in the 1980s.
While he said migration to the region is increasing, he said, “There are still relatively low numbers.”
Shelby Stewman, a professor of sociology and demography at Carnegie Mellon University who has done demographic studies for area school districts, expects birth rate in Allegheny County to edge upward in five to 10 years — or sooner.
“Then it’s going to continue for a good little spell,” he said, saying the “echo boom” could run 15 to 20 years in Allegheny County.
An uptick in the birth rate would mean more students of kindergarten age five years later. Districts with strong academic reputations or new housing developments may also attract students who weren’t born in their districts.
“For districts losing population generally and in particular not holding their 20-to-40 populations, they will not have this birth impact, but the rest of them will,” Mr. Stewman said.
Mrs. Lane is hopeful enrollment may stabilize in Pittsburgh Public Schools.
While the official figures for this fall aren’t in, Mrs. Lane said kindergarten enrollment was up the last two years.
“We hadn’t seen that in a long, long time,” she said.
The echo boom doesn’t mean that Penn Hills can expect to return to the days of graduation classes of 1,200 — or that every school district can expect to fill out their buildings.
But Ms. Wolf, who lives in the Penn Hills house in which she grew up, doesn’t see the smaller size of her alma mater as a negative.
She recalls a crowded high school even though only 11th and 12th graders were in the building.
When her son Nicholas, the second of five children, started high school, four grades shared the same building that had housed two. In 2012, Penn Hills opened a new high school.
Ms. Wolf sees more opportunities. Classes are smaller than she recalls, and, with less competition, students can make the team instead of being cut and participate in more activities.
“I think if you want a good education, I think you can get it here,” she said.
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Part 2: Closings and consolidations
Part 3: Small schools and districts
Education writer Eleanor Chute: email@example.com or 412-263-1955.