LENOX — The student count in the town’s public school district has surged by nearly 9 percent compared to the 2021-22 school year, bucking a yearslong countywide trend of declining enrollment.
The increase was fueled by a return of some who were homeschooled or attended private and religious schools during the COVID pandemic.
“It’s a dramatic increase,” School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan pointed out at last week’s meeting.
The current pre-K to Grade 12 total of 785 — to be reported to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education later this month — is the highest for Morris Elementary and Lenox Memorial Middle and High School since the 2011-12 school year. Last year on Oct. 1, enrollment was 722.
About 40 percent of the students are from other school districts, primarily Pittsfield, through the state’s school choice program. The district maintains an informal guideline capping nonresident totals at 40 percent districtwide and 50 percent for any specific grade.
Some elementary school parents voiced concerns over the larger size of their children’s classes compared to last year.
“It’s a beautiful community, a beautiful space, the teachers are amazing, they all want to be there and stay there,” Kristie Prew said at the meeting. “I don’t want to lose that. … It’s great there are more Lenox families, I’m not against school choice in any way, it adds quite a bit to our community. I just don’t want to see what we have getting lost, if we’re adding too much.”
Susanna Keefe, another Morris Elementary parent, urged attention to “the needs of the student body.” She emphasized the importance of small class size, especially in kindergarten and the lower grades of elementary school and cited the impact of the pandemic on student literacy.
School Committee member Oren Cass pointed to a sharp increase in third- and four-grade students, spurred by an influx of nonresidents. That meant an increase of classroom size by three or four pupils, with last year’s average of 16 rising to 20 currently, for example.
“In recent years, people have gotten used to smaller numbers,” Vaughan said. He was principal at Morris for 25 years, retiring from that post in 2007.
Vaughan noted that the current enrollment of 340 for pre-K through fifth grade at Morris is within the guidelines of the district’s first five-year strategic plan adopted in 2015, though it’s up from 296 at this time last year. “I think it feels dramatically different because there was such an increase this year,” he acknowledged.
A new strategic plan was approved last year for 2021-2026.
“There’s some irony that we’re confronting the opposite problem from what we were agonizing about for years — declining enrollment,” said School Committee member Christine Mauro. “Here, we’re talking about rising enrollment and the data shows we have more resident students, which is a fabulous non-problem. This is the situation we’ve been hoping for, for years.”
Schools Superintendent Marc Gosselin Jr. explained that research varies on ideal class size, with pros and cons for smaller as well as larger groups.
“There’s a sweet spot we reach in talking about this,” he said. Referring to school choice enrollment, Gosselin described Lenox as “in the glorious position as a very sought-after district, wait-listed at just about every grade level. We have more people applying to come in to Lenox than we ever had.”
He also cited the district as the destination for Morris students. “We want to make sure we have enough kids feeding the high school,” Gosselin said. “For a small school, I suggest we punch way above our weight in being able to offer a host of honors and Advanced Placement courses, athletic opportunities, the arts and music that many schools of our size would never be able to offer.”
Gosselin also told the committee and members of the public that part of the enrollment upsurge reported now includes some school choice students who joined the district last year after the state’s Oct. 1 reporting deadline. Also, current enrollment is close to historical levels, even though the pandemic lowered the student count last year.
“We work closely with principals to make sure we’re right-sizing the schools, sufficiently large that kids are getting a great experience but not so large that students feel unknown or aren’t getting the support services they need,” Gosselin said.