The Ripley Central School District, tucked away in a quiet corner of Western New York State near the banks of Lake Erie, served more than 500 students in 1994. Today, only 137 students are enrolled in the district, a loss of about 73 percent.
Some of that loss was intentional. Ripley pays to send its 100 high schoolers elsewhere so they will have more and better opportunities. It is a solution that is attracting attention in a state where enrollment in rural districts has declined steadily over the past 25 years.
"They are still our kids, so we are still invested in their successes," said Paul McCutcheon, president of the Ripley school board. "It works like a regional high school probably would."
Rural migration is a disturbing trend for those concerned about equality in education in New York state.
Declining enrollments have certainly affected school districts in the Cayuga County-area, which is largely rural. Data from the state Department of Education for 1994 through 2017 show an average 30.2% enrollment drop for the nine districts that are components of the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES region.
The smallest decline, at 19.74%, belonged to the least rural district: Auburn Enlarged City School District. Southern Cayuga Central District, by contrast, experienced a 48.61% decrease, the largest among the nine local districts.
The lower student populations have driven decisions to close several school buildings locally over the years, including Auburn's West Middle School in 2011, Southern Cayuga's Emily Howland Elementary School in 2012 and Union Spring Central School District's Cayuga Elementary School in 2018.
New York stands out
Economics and natural change are to blame for the decrease in rural populations nationwide, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But in New York's school districts, where two-thirds of nonfederal funding comes from local property taxes, the impact is particularly intense.
Even the brightest students in rural schools find it hard to compete for employment and college admissions with students from more populated areas, where advanced classes and electives are plentiful, experts say.
"The kind of educational programming and the breath of curriculum you get is far too dependent on what the community itself can afford," said David Little, executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State. "That’s exactly the opposite of the way it is in virtually every other state in the union. Most states pay two thirds the cost of education, and the one third that locality pays for is really kind of curriculum enhancement."
When economies decline, so do property tax revenues. Fewer students and less local money means fewer opportunities. While their peers in urban and suburban school districts can choose from full menus of advanced placement, honors and college courses, many rural school districts can offer only a select few.
Foreign language courses are often limited to one or two choices. Classes like dance, theater and photography are nearly unheard of. Those limited options can make students less appealing to colleges and universities, Little said. His own son was rejected by his dream college because his high school did not offer the electives they were looking for.
"It is kind of this downward spiral that we are only now economically starting to get out of," Little said. "And until the state recognizes that these communities have a burden that’s far too dramatic for them to overcome on their own and the state agrees to alter the way that it funds public education, we won’t stop the spiral."
The state Education Department declined interview requests for this story, instead issuing a statement that says it is committed to ensuring all students thrive and succeed. The state received $1.6 billion in federal funds under the Every Student Succeeds Act to work on such strategies beginning in the spring of 2018, according to the statement. Of that money, $80 million is earmarked for improvements and programs in the state's lowest-performing districts, which includes rural schools.
"Above all, our ESSA plan emphasizes the importance of fostering equity in education for all of New York’s students. And one of the most important ways we do this by incentivizing districts to provide opportunities to all high school students to engage in advanced coursework that is often unavailable in smaller, rural school districts," according to the statement.
Little said the state's plans for the federal grant money give him hope, but he noted that New York City, as a high-needs district, will likely get half of the $80 million designated for program improvements, leaving only $40 million for the 320 rural districts that need it. Even if the money is well-used, the impact will not be great enough, he said.
"It's not a panacea," Little said. "It’s an indication that they recognize the need and are willing to begin to target resources for it. So, we are happy about that, but I hope that they don't think it fixes the problem."
Seeking creative solutions
Like Little, many experts agree that the long-term solution is to change the way public schools are funded in New York State. In the meantime, however, rural communities are getting creative. They are experimenting with regional high schools, community school districts and distance learning programs that offer students more options. They are working with local colleges and businesses to provide more jobs and train students for existing jobs.
They are evolving in order to survive, and Ripley has taken the lead.
"We had reached a point where we couldn't sustain what we needed to for a high school in terms of giving students educational options," McCutcheon said. "We had the bare necessities, but it was really difficult to have any kind of electives programs because we didn't have enough student body and enough tax base really to have a successful high school program."
In 2013, Ripley eliminated its high school classes and began paying tuition for its students to attend nearby Chautauqua Lake Central High School. Its students now have access to college courses, electives such as Mandarin Chinese and television production, and a variety of STEM classes. The two districts share administrative services as well, such as a transportation supervisor and a building manager.
Despite the enrollment loss, Ripley's halls are far from empty. To fill the void, Ripley leases office space to the town at cost. The district has also opened up its building to the community, housing a local food pantry and maintaining a fitness center that is free to residents.
"We are always keeping our ear to the ground to see what is out there for opportunities," McCutcheon said.
The USDA's Department of Economic Research studies population migration. Their research reveals two major forces behind population decline in rural areas. The economy is one factor. Jobs are harder to find in rural areas, making urban and suburban areas more attractive, especially to recent college graduates.
The second reason is natural change. Elderly residents are dying at typical rates, but young people are having fewer babies. Recent statistics show slight increases in natural change in the past two years, offering some hope that losses overall will at least slow down.
Little said New York's rural districts have been particularly hard hit in the past seven years. He believes the state's high taxes are not only driving people out of rural areas but out of the state as a whole, worsening the problem.
"If I come out of college, and I am in a rural area, I not only have very few economic opportunities within a rural area to come back home to, but I also have to be willing, in addition to my student loans, to accept higher taxes and the higher debt load that will ensure that my taxes are higher going into the future," he said.
Little's organization is lobbying for an overhaul in the state funding system, but that will not help today's students. So, districts are exploring and implementing short-term solutions.
Attempts at consolidation
Mergers, once a popular answer to the problem, have mostly failed in recent years. Bob Lowry, deputy director of the state's Council of School Superintendents, says higher taxes for the smaller districts in proposed mergers and loss of identity for both districts are factors.
While mergers are failing, proposals for regional high schools, community schools and distance learning program are gaining popularity.
The concept of regional high schools has been tossed around for years, but the state has done little to promote it, Lowry said. Under a regional high school system, participating districts would retain their elementary and middle schools but would pick one building to serve all the area's high school students.
Such systems are popular in other states and have been successful in parts of Long Island, Little said.
"It really has the opportunity to transform rural New York. The ideal of regional high schools is very much the forefront of what I think needs to be done for our rural schools," he said.
Regional high schools would be supported by all involved districts. The concept is similar to that of the state's Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which provides shared educational services and programs to school districts, mostly in special education, and career and technical education. Each region has its own BOCES and each participating district has a representative on the BOCES school board. Districts decide each year what services they need, and then pay for those services out of their annual budgets.
Ripley's solution differs from the regional high school concept in that district residents have no representation on the Chautauqua Lake school board. The district pays nearly $8,000 per student each year. It pays less for students who attend BOCES half time and nothing for those who attend BOCES full time. Ripley has no official say in class offerings, policy decisions or any other issues related to Chautauqua Lake High School.
It is not practical or economically wise for every district to tuition-out all its students, but the state's teachers union has traditionally opposed the creation of regional high schools, Lowry said. Teachers fear that merged high schools will lead to job losses, he said.
"We’ve already had the loss of jobs," Lowry said. "Now we are trying to save jobs and expand the curriculum. We need every teacher we can get."
Matthew Hamilton, spokesperson for New York State United Teachers, declined to comment specifically on the union's position on regional schools.
Don Carlisto, dean of students for Saranac Lake's middle school, sits on the NYSUT board of directors and is president of the Saranac Lake chapter. He said mergers and regional schools can succeed when all parties work together to do what is best for kids, teachers and residents. Carlisto pointed to a recent merger of the Elizabethtown-Lewis and Westport central districts as an example.
"I think that we would be doing a disservice if we just sort of had this reflexive kind of knee-jerk reaction that the teachers union are obstructionists," Carlisto said. "There are always going to be obstructionists. There are plenty of examples that I can cite where teachers unions are at the table with communities sort of moving issues forward."
Saranac Lake's enrollment has dropped almost 35 percent since 1994, forcing the closing of all but one neighborhood elementary school. The district is already the state's largest at more than 600 square miles. Some students sit on buses for more than an hour each way. Merging with another district would be impractical.
Saranac Lake has instead adopted the community schools concept with the support of the teachers union, the superintendent and the school board, Carlisto said. Community schools attempt to stave off migration by making rural life more appealing and more feasible. Schools become community centers, offering everything from medical services to day care to wellness centers.
"The community schools model basically says, let's make the school the hub of the community and house the services that kids need in the school building, where we have them for eight hours a day instead of making them travel to Glens Falls for a dentist appointment because that is the only place that they’ll be able to have their Medicaid accepted," Carlisto said. "We are trying to bring the services that they need into the school because, ultimately, if you are able to provide the resources and have a student be made whole, it leads to better educational outcomes."
The concept originated in McDowell County, West Virginia, ranked as one of the poorest counties in the nation.
In 2011, the local teachers union spearheaded the launch of Reconnecting McDowell, an effort to improve educational outcomes by addressing poverty and its impact on students and families. The effort has evolved into a partnership among Fortune 500 corporations and labor unions; national, state and local nonprofits and agencies; parents and pastors; school personnel and students, and local residents, according to a press release from the American Federation of Teachers.
Together, the groups have created community schools that have seen graduation rates increase from 74 percent in 2010-11 to 88 percent in 2015-16, and drop-out rates decrease from 4.5 percent to 1.6 percent during that same period, according to the union. Test scores increased overall and the number of students attending college jumped from 24.6 percent to 40.3 percent.
This spring, Reconnect McDowell will break ground on an apartment complex with amenities designed to attract new teachers and other young professionals to the area.
Carlisto gets excited when he talks about the role teachers unions can play in improving education and economies in rural areas. In Massena, the possible closure of an Alcoa plant, the area's biggest employer, in 2015 led to the creation of The People Project, an initiative of the Massena Federation of Teachers. The People Project focuses on economic development, health and wellness, and community schools. It's latest effort is the creation of a regional chamber of commerce.
"Teachers unions are engaging with communities in ways that maybe we haven’t before to defend the communities when their economic vitality is threatened," Carlisto said. "I think ultimately that’s one of the strategies going forward to kind of start to mitigate and, hopefully, reverse this trend in declining involvement— enrollment. Making sure that communities are viable and sustainable and brimming with opportunity for folks."
Though some state funding is available for community school initiatives, Saranac Lake gets none. The school board carved money out of the budget to hire a coordinator in July and formed an advisory council made up of parents who are traditionally unable to become involved in school issues. Already, the district is seeing results. The parents group noted that a bus driver shortage could be rectified by offering training and licensing locally, so unemployed residents can apply for the jobs. The district is working to provide free eye care and to coordinate services with the United Way.
"It is just a matter of getting all of the moving parts moving in the same direction ... under the umbrella of the school district. That is not something that has happened before, and it is now starting to happen with the community schools model," Carlisto said.
Like many other rural school districts, Saranac Lake is also integrating distance learning as a way to expand its offerings for students.
The teachers union has been careful to ensure that computers do not replace teachers. The district offers online classes only if students demand them and no current staff is qualified to teach them. A teacher or a teacher's aide is always in the room to help students when they need it.
Little said distance learning is much more appealing than it was in the past.
It is more interactive, thanks to advances in technology that offer video conferencing, 3D printing, simulators and individualized learning. He compares the impact of the digital technology on schools to that of the school bus when it was first introduced. Though school buses have been transporting children since the days of the horse and carriage, they did not become widely popular until the 1940s, after new manufacturing standards were developed to make them safer.
"Before the school bus, we didn’t teach kids in an age-appropriate fashion and we didn’t even really teach them sequentially for education. They were in much smaller, if not one-room schools," Little said. "The school bus allowed us to put enough kids of a certain age at one time in one place. To be able to teach them all like that. Well, the computer has changed time and place again."
Still, Little said, efforts to create regional schools, community schools and distance learning programs are not enough.
The state's funding formula is unconstitutional in that it results in less competitive diplomas in districts with low property taxes, he said. Though education is not a fundamental right, the 14th Amendment requires equal access to schooling in states that provide it.
"As important as all of those other things are and as impactful as all of those things could be, actually getting an accurate and equitable state funding formula trumps them all," Little said. "It is a really simple concept."