With rise in nonresident enrollment, Lenox inching toward school choice cap

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LENOX — Thanks to an influx of nonresident students, total enrollment in the public school district for next fall is expected to be up by 32 students from the current academic year, a 4.3 percent gain.

But future school choice enrollment in some classes is likely to be limited or even frozen, according to Superintendent Timothy Lee, because in several grades, nonresidents are outnumbering local students, or approaching the 50 percent cap approved by the district as a guideline.

Current districtwide enrollment is 735, with school choice students making up 34 percent of the total, Lee told committee members at Monday night's meeting.

The projected level for next fall is 767 students, "up considerably, which is nice," he said. Nonresidents account for 37 percent of that total, within the 40 percent district maximum guideline set by the committee and the administration.

Noting that resident enrollment for the next school year is down by two students, Lee observed that "all of this new enrollment we're seeing next year is school choice enrollment."

"The impact that this is going to have next year is that we're actually going to be able to take in very few choice students going into future years," he pointed out. "Some of our grades are already shut down and I don't anticipate we're going to be offering school choice for a number of years in those grades."

For the 2016-17 school year, grades that are at 45 percent or higher choice enrollment include kindergarten, fourth, ninth and 11th, a chart prepared by the administration showed.

Most of the total student population growth is in the middle and high school, but anticipated resident enrollment at Morris Elementary School is down from 225 to 207 for next fall. In contrast, local student totals at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School are projected to grow from 254 to 270.

Lee acknowledged that the enrollment scenario is affected by an anomaly this year — only 40 seniors are in the graduating class for this Sunday's ceremony at Tanglewood, while a more typical total of 61 seniors are expected at LMMHS next fall, 74 percent of them residents.

School Committee member Neal Maxymillian asked whether the increase in resident enrollment for fifth, seventh and eighth grades for next year is caused by families moving to town so their youngsters can attend the local public schools, or whether it reflects the return of previous choice-out students.

But Lee reiterated that most of the new-student enrollment results from nonresident increases.

On the other hand, several out-of-town families whose students were denied entry because certain grades were maxed-out for choice have notified the administration that they intend to move into Lenox.

Nevertheless, the school district has not seen the increase in resident enrollment that administrators had hoped for and that the district's five-year strategic plan has advocated, Lee said.

Maxymillian speculated that the guidelines limiting nonresident enrollment "may be influencing parent behavior" by illustrating that choice is a dubious option for future years.

The superintendent expressed the hope that families will realize that moving into town is "one of the last avenues that people have to enroll."

Tracing the recent history of choice enrollment, Lee cited the 2008-09 school year, when about 20 percent of the student body was non-resident.

"It slowly climbed up to a quarter, we crested 30 percent probably two years ago, last year we were 34 percent," he said. Next fall's expected 37 percent figure is the highest for choice enrollment in the school district's history.

Overall student totals bottomed out in 2014-15 at 728 and then began climbing again.

School Committee member Molly Elliot noted several strong strategic study recommendations that included recapturing resident students who choice out to other districts and improving the marketing of the town's quality of life, focusing on the strengths of the public schools.

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.


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