The dwindling of the school-age population in our area is a real concern; it is symptomatic of the failure to retain and attract young families. We all know the economic realities that contribute to the situation: the dearth of high-paying year-round jobs, the lack of affordable rental housing and the soaring price of homeownership. These are systemic, regional problems that Chatham, Harwich and Orleans cannot wholly solve on their own, although it should not stop efforts to identify potential solutions that could help, even in small ways.
The Monomoy Regional School District's recently announced expansion of early childhood education opportunities in both Harwich and Chatham is one of those initiatives that may be a tiny step in the right directions. Working with the YMCA of Cape Cod and the federal Head Start program, the school department will tap vacant space at the Harwich and Chatham elementary schools—dropping enrollment means one fewer kindergarten and first grade class this coming school year—to house programs for infants and toddlers through preschoolers. In Harwich, the YMCA will operate infant and toddler and preschool classes year-round, and the Community Development Institute will operate a Head Start full-day preschool program at Chatham elementary for income-qualified students. The programs are open to children inside and outside of the Monomoy School District.
A lack of infant and toddler care is a chief concern of those who have been studying the region's demographic problems, and the Chatham Economic Development Committee even pushed for the town to fund vouchers to make those programs free for local families; the town ended up increasing funding for the town's childcare voucher fund. This should only be a stop-gap measure, however. The Chatham committee has said that it still believes free childcare vouchers are justified and we encourage them to continue to push for the program.
There was some concern that the new early education programs happened too quickly and without adequate vetting by the school committee or the community. There is some validity to this, although school officials had indicated they were exploring opportunities in these areas more than a year ago. Of greater concern is that this is an opening to eliminating separate elementary schools, with Chatham eventually becoming an early education center and Harwich housing the upper elementary grades, similar to plans floated by the school administration last year. Without a change to the regional school agreement, requiring votes of both towns' boards of selectmen and town meetings, that can't happen. We would not be surprised to see the topic raised again, however, given the discouraging downward trend in school enrollment numbers. In the meantime, the new programs will fill a gap and, we hope, convince some families to continue to make this their home.