A new demographic report shows that the number of children on Cape Cod has been declining since 2010, as the population shifts to one that’s more elderly, childless, and seasonal. School officials are already seeing these effects, particularly on the Outer Cape, where enrollment numbers are slipping.
This is part one of a two-part series examining declining school enrollment on Cape Cod. You can hear part two here.
Last summer, Mike Gradone, the superintendent of Truro Central School got a bit of a shock. When his enrollment roster came in for the upcoming school year, for sixth grade he saw a big zero. For the first time in his memory, the class would be empty.
"On this chart, see how we had no sixth graders last year?" Gradone pointed out. "They all chose to go to Nauset."
Nauset is the big regional school district, about half an hour away. Truro Central has always been the small, town school, hovering at around 100 students for grades Pre-K through sixth, and the sixth grade has typically had just around 10 to 15 students. But as a lack of affordable and year-round housing pushes out younger families, small local schools like Truro may start to see zeros more often.
Peter Francese, a demographer who recently compiled the report for superintendents on the Cape, said the numbers show no sign of turning around.
"The trends are showing a continual, inexorable decline. The numbers of children have been shrinking very steadily, sort of like a slow drift downward during the past seven years," he said.
The Cape has about 14 percent fewer children than it had 8 years ago.
"That has meant that today, there are roughly 5000 fewer children than there were when the 2010 census was taken," Francese said.
According to Francese, in Truro, just 1 in 7 households have school-aged children. He predicted that in 10 years, the ratio of households with children will be closer to 1 in 10.
Back at Truro Central, Gradone and his staff had to make a tough decision. After no children showed up for sixth grade, the staff had to ask: should they keep their sixth grade? In the end, they decided that for now, they should.
"If there were no Truro Central School, I think we lose one of the community's anchors. I think we lose some young families who are here because there’s a school here that they know and care about," Gradone said. "And if their kids had to go somewhere else, there would be less reason to stay in town."
The school decided to revamp its sixth grade program in an effort to keep students from leaving. That meant making Truro’s sixth grade more like Nauset’s and more like a bigger middle school. Now, this year's five sixth graders change classrooms for different subjects. They have a Spanish language and culture program.
And they have lockers. It’s a big thing for sixth grader Lily Rice, who shows off her new locker before class. It’s like any middle schooler’s locker. There are crumpled papers and extra clothes.
"My locker’s very messy," she said. "I have my shoes, all my binders – I have a lot of binders – I have some books."
This year’s sixth grade is made up entirely of girls, all of whom have known each other since kindergarten. Lily said she’s glad her school has reworked their sixth grade program, because now she feels like she can get the best of both worlds: stay with her friends, and be prepared for seventh grade at a bigger district.
"We chose to stay here, instead of going to the other school, the [Nauset] middle school. So they want to prepare us for the middle school," she said. "It’s very important for us to have a lock, for when we have a lock next year."
While Gradone can’t predict how next year’s sixth grade enrollment will go, he hopes that with the changes his staff has made to the curriculum, this class of five will grow back to its usual numbers in the coming years.
"We hope that the parents of our fifth graders will look at this program, more of them will say we want our kids to stay here in sixth grade," he said. "So that’s a very direct example of what we’ve had to do, as enrollment drops. There are fewer kids, and we are very literally in competition with Nauset for kids."
This is the first story in our two-part series about declining school enrollment on Cape Cod. You can hear part two here.