What's The Future Of Chatham Elementary School?

By: Tim Wood

Chatham Elementary School. FILE PHOTO

Steep Enrollment Decline Likely To Lead To Changes

CHATHAM – Chatham Elementary School could end up as one of the smallest elementary schools on the Cape if recent enrollment trends continue.

A 12 percent drop in enrollment this fall resulted in the school's usual three classes at the kindergarten level dropping to two, requiring the transfer of one teacher to Harwich Elementary School to keep class size in balance between the two schools. Monomoy Regional School District Superintendent Scott Carpenter said projections indicate the numbers will remain at current levels into the foreseeable future, resulting in the Chatham school having just two classes at every grade level within a few years.

Meanwhile, every classroom at Harwich Elementary School is in use, and individual class sizes are pushing against limits set for the school district.

“If Chatham continues to have low elementary enrollment, Chatham Elementary may become 'too small' as an elementary school, and Harwich Elementary may potentially have 'too large' of an elementary enrollment,” Carpenter said in remarks to Harwich selectmen last week. He was scheduled to deliver the same message to Chatham selectmen Tuesday.

But that message comes amid good news. The loss of students at the middle and high school levels to other districts that plagued the Monomoy district during its first few years has halted, with middle school enrollment up 6.6 percent and the high school up 1.5 percent as of Oct. 1.

“We're seeing an actual net influx of students at the high school,” most of them local residents returning to Monomoy from other districts, including Nauset, Carpenter said Monday. The biggest outflow since Harwich and Chatham combined schools to form Monomoy has occurred between fifth and sixth grade; last year, 44 students left the district at that level, heading for Nauset or the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School. This year that number “decreased significantly,” Carpenter said, dropping to 24.

“We've really seen the middle school start to gel,” he said. A population bubble at fifth grade – which has nearly 190 students, 50 more than any other middle school grade and significantly more than most high school classes – will move up through the grade levels in the coming years.

Those population gains, however, are offset by the declines at the elementary level, where both Chatham and Harwich elementary schools saw a drop. This year sees Chatham Elementary with a total population of 244, compared to 278 last year, with Harwich at 552, down from 568 last year.

While school choice is behind losses at the middle and high school levels, the decline in families with young children, an ongoing Cape-wide demographic shift, is responsible for the changes at the elementary level, Carpenter said. Escalating housing costs in both towns are a significant factor, and the problem is more acute in Chatham, he said.

Local towns have been struggling to deal with the housing affordability problem, with the impacts extending from the schools to a lack of workers to fill service industry jobs. It's not a problem the school department can solve on its own, Carpenter said, but there are options the district can consider to accommodate the demographic changes at the elementary level.

One was floated last year: require students from certain areas of Harwich to attend elementary school in Chatham. Other school districts with multiple elementary schools commonly shift boundaries between schools in response to population changes, Carpenter said, with the goal of balancing out the number of classes as well as keeping class sizes roughly commensurate.

Another option is to shift grade levels between the two schools and make Chatham elementary an early education center.

“I think there are advantages to that,” Carpenter said. When teachers from a single grade work together, for instance, “you see a lot of collaboration happening,” he noted. But there are challenges as well; it would increase transportation costs by requiring an additional tier of buses, and because preschool and kindergarten classes typically have their own bathrooms, there would be capital costs as well.

“I like the idea of clustering classes together, but I think there are some physical plant constrains that might not make it feasible,” he said.

Both of these options would require changing the regional agreement that created the Monomoy School District, which states that students from each town will attend their own elementary school. Right now the school committee is engaged in the required five-year review of the agreement, so the timing is good. Any changes to the agreement require ratification by town meetings in both communities.

Over the next few weeks, Carpenter will be meeting with parents to discuss the enrollment issue. “You ultimately need to get the parents' support to coalesce around a solution to change a regional agreement,” he said. He'll work with the school committee to develop changes to the regional agreement that reflect the “best way to support our elementary schools over the next five to 10 years,” with the goal of having a proposal ready in December and putting the modifications to the regional agreement before voters at the May annual town meetings.

Carpenter has also floated the idea of creating a public daycare/preschool program that would be free to residents as a way to encourage more young families to move to the area. Many families struggle with the cost of daycare, which is often essentially when both parents work. Eliminating those costs can mean the difference between affording a mortgage and not being able to meet that cost, Carpenter said.

But as was pointed out at last week's Harwich selectmen's meeting, this could impact private daycare businesses and preschools in the area. Carpenter suggested that there could be some sort of public-private solution explored. A school-based program also would not solve the problem of summer child care for working families, he added.

Last year the Chatham Economic Development Committee suggested that the town consider paying daycare costs of residents as an incentive for young families to settle here. Carpenter said the committee recently sent him that memo.

The district will continue its efforts to convince Harwich families with kids in entering kindergarten to send them to Chatham. While several families expressed an interest this year, the 34-member Chatham kindergarten class includes only three kids from Harwich. The result is that Chatham's two kindergarten classes have 17 students each, while Harwich's six classes have an average of 18.5 kids. Maintaining that ratio required the transfer of one kindergarten teacher to Harwich, Carpenter explained.

“We're trying to provide as much balance between the two buildings as we can with class size,” he said. But, he added, “We can't keep moving a teacher over to balance things. All of the classrooms in Harwich Elementary School are in use.”

Carpenter will meet with parents today (Oct. 19) at 6:30 p.m. in the middle school library; on Monday, Oct. 23 at 7:45 a.m. at the Harwich Elementary School community room; on Wednesday, Oct. 25 at the Monomoy High School library; at 9 a.m. Nov. 3 at the Harwich Elementary School community room; and Nov. 9 at 7:45 a.m. at the Chatham Elementary School cafeteria.