By Penni Schaefer
09/15/08 — If you build them, they will come.
Or will they?
No one hopes that is more true than officials at all three school districts in Crawford County that have invested tens of millions of dollars in renovations, curriculum improvements and the latest technology, only to see student populations tailing off over the past five years. Drops ranging from 1.6 percent to a whopping 9 percent.
Conneaut School District seems to be in the least desirable position, losing 254 students — 8.91 percent — since 2004.
Ironically, the district celebrated the culmination of its district-wide building renovation project in July following the completion of the administration office.
There are a variety of factors that contribute to the loss of students, Superintendent Richard Rossi pointed out, but said the economy is the most significant.
“During the late 90s the tool and die industry in Crawford County was probably the number one employer,” Rossi said. “But about six years ago we started to see a decline within that industry, and with many of the employees living within the boundaries of the Conneaut School District, we experienced (a drop because) many families relocated to other areas for employment.”
Mike Dolecki, superintendent of Crawford Central School District, also said there was a 1.6 percent decline, but said the change was nominal and seemed to be in sync with the general decline in the area population, which, according to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania Web site, the county has experienced a 1.1 percent drop since 2000 (from 90,366 in 2000 to 89,389 in 2006).
Superintendent Richard Borchilo of PENNCREST School District, acknowledged the impact of the economy, but had a different opinion as to why his district has seen more than a 5 percent reduction in the student body over five years.
“In some cases, parents are exercising their right to school choice,” Borchilo said. “They may elect to home school, home tutor or enroll them in cyber services or private or parochial schools.”
Whatever the reason for the slump, Rossi and Borchilo said the downturn has resulted in some positions not being filled when teachers and staff retire.
For Conneaut, however, additional and more unconventional steps have been taken in order to compensate for the dwindling number of pupils.
“We’ve had to combine students from different grade levels into one classroom, and though I wasn’t a big fan of it, it was our only alternative,” Rossi said. “It would not have made sense to have classrooms with only 10 kids in them.”
The feedback that Rossi has received from parents and faculty is mixed, but said “it appears to be working.”
Other plans for Conneaut include developing a plan to incorporate sixth-grade students into the middle school sometime in the near future.
“We’re looking at moving the sixth-grade students to the middle schools in order to keep the team concept alive and make it a true middle school,” Rossi said. “With other programs such as kindergarten and Pre K Counts, we now have much younger kids in our elementary schools.”
Pre K Counts is a program created by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and private foundations that begins educating children at 3 and 4 years old.
For “comparison purposes,” Rossi said currently there are a total of 226 students who are slated to graduate in 2009, but only children attending kindergarten.
“It’s striking,” Rossi said, “and while I’m not sure what Conneaut School District is going to look like in another 10 years, I am certain that it’s going to be very different district than it is right now.”
All three superintendents acknowledged that the economy and inflation has taken its toll and that each district is doing what it can to tighten their belts, including reducing overall staffing through attrition.
All three area school districts were awarded Classrooms for the Future grants which will provide funding to bring dozens of laptop computers into the classrooms and provide a more interactive learning environment and make their districts more competitive.
Borchilo said PENNCREST is making other changes as well.
“PENNCREST School District takes a proactive approach to education, and we believe in training our staff in best practice methodology, differentiating instruction and maintaining adequate yearly progress.” Borchilo said. “With the availability of on-line district and school report cards for accountability purposes, parents who are considering moving into our attendance area can easily see that we strive to make adequate yearly progress, and, as a result, they can make an informed decision to enroll in (their children) our schools.”
With two elementary schools currently under renovation and two more elementary schools slated to begin renovations next year, Dolecki said
“Improvement is a continual thing,” he said. “We are constantly striving to get better and in addition to building renovations, we are diversifying our programs and trying to accommodate as many students as possible within our budgetary constraints.”