CHESHIRE — Twenty years ago, the senior class at Hoosac Valley High School — drawing from Adams, Cheshire and Savoy — had 124 students.
This year's freshman class at Hoosac stands at just 63, according to Department of Secondary and Elementary Education data.
The precipitous drop in student enrollment has played a major role in its inability to remain financially sustainable, and projections of continued student decline will be an important consideration as Adams-Cheshire Regional School District weighs a major restructuring.
Following a study of district's predicament, the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management earlier this month released options for district officials to consider — ranging from closing one of two elementary schools to splitting the district at the elementary level — as they begin discussions about the fiscal 2018 budget.
"In the 17 years I have been on the school committee, I have seen student enrollment drop from over 1800 to around 1350 this year," said School Committee Chairman Paul Butler, who cited factors such as a "loss of economic opportunity" leading to overall population decline and an expansion in school choice resulting on students choosing to attend school elsewhere.
Student enrollment figures in to how much state aid the district receives, but can also affect how efficiently the district spends its dollars as class sizes in individual grades shrink. Fewer students in a class do not necessarily mean the district can do away with a teacher's salary, for example, and the cost of maintaining the building remains the same.
In partly addressing enrollment decline, The Collins Center recommended the district improve and widen its academic offerings to attract more students to stay at Adams and Cheshire public schools instead of heading elsewhere.
"To counter the trend of declining student enrollment, the district will need to improve student achievement and encourage existing students to stay through their high school years," the report stated, even suggesting that "the district could continue to see additional towns to join the partnership since many if not all are facing challenges with population declines and dwindling enrollment."
In 2016, 75 students in the district attended BaRT, according to the Collins Center, and 156 attended McCann, both sharp increases since 2000 that are only partly offset by a declining number of students who choose to attend private school over a public education.
In total, 410 school-attending residents in Adams and Cheshire attended out-of-district schools in 2016, an increase of 165 since the 2000 school year.
"The proximity of BART, [St. Stanislaus Kostka School], and McCann also provide families with more choices than available in many other parts of the county. One might also surmise that the Accountability Status of the district school plays a role in the decisions of some families," said Superintendent Robert Putnam.
The district also runs a deficit of school choice students. Seventy-one students attend another district, while 50 choose to attend Adams-Cheshire from outside. That's a reversal from historical norms: In 1996, the district received 31 students while only 19 opted to attend elsewhere.
But the drop in enrollment also cannot be pinned solely on students opting for the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter School or McCann Tech.
Overall, the district faces a declining student population in the towns, regardless of where students choose to attend school. In 1970, the towns' largest demographic were residents between the ages of 0 and 19. As of the 2010 census, the most common age group was residents between 45 and 64 years old, followed by those between 20 and 44 years old.
Between 2000 and 2016, the number of school-age residents in the two communities dropped by 16 percent, from 1,953 to 1,636.
The district is not alone in its struggles with population in Berkshire County or even the Northeast, according to Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
"If you look at a macro scale across the Northeast, essentially almost all of the more rural areas that don't have a major university of military facility in them look much the same," Karns said.
The projected enrollment will have to play a factor in how the district chooses to move forward, according to school officials. Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks