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Districts With One High School Must Assess Purpose and Programs as Enrollments Decline

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"For districts with one high school, declining enrollment requires fundamental reassessment of the purpose of the high school and the role of the high school in the community; defining what the high school should be and do in the next five to ten years and how to do it."

That is the conclusion of Planning for Declining Enrollment in Single High School Districts, a report recently issued by the National Institute of Education (nie). But too few communities, the report contends, are prepared for the decline.

During the 1980's, the report predicts, high-school enrollments will drop to 75 percent of their levels in 1976, the peak year. Those areas of the country which do experience declines--particularly the northeast and north-central regions--will graduate from 20-percent to 40-percent fewer students, the report says.

"There is a special urgency for this planning in school districts with a single high school--a category which includes roughly three out of four school districts in this country," the report states. Without such planning, the document predicts, change will be "a slow erosion of the high-school program which was supported by large numbers of students and which community residents have come to expect."

The report offers strategies ranging from reducing elective courses to opening schools at night to the community. Based on the suggestions and experiences of six school districts--rural, suburban, and urban--that are facing enrollment declines, the strategies fall into three broad areas:

Sharing programs and resources with other school districts;

Changing programs, staff structure, and schedules within the school system;

Forging alliances with educational and community institutions outside the school system--and, at the same time, broadening the school's clientele to include adults.

Within the school, several options are available. These include combining related courses in the same room at the same time, such as two science courses or two levels of a foreign language.

Faculty's Role Changes

Class size and structure can also be changed, with greater use of independent study, pre-packaged courses, or a few large lecture courses.

Other suggestions include retraining or recruiting teachers who are competent to teach in several areas, and making such scheduling changes as offering more terms, but shorter ones.

The changing role of faculty members is one of the most sensitive issues raised by such changes, according to the report. School officials should plan carefully and consult faculty members in seeking to expand teachers' areas of competence, it says.

Another approach to declining enrollment is reorganizing the grade structure--by including the ninth grade and creating a four-year high school, for example, while finding new community uses for the surplus junior high school.

As a way to preserve important elective and extracurricular programs, the report also suggests sharing programs, services, and staff members with other school districts. A high school in a small suburban district in Glen Rock, N.J., for example, is sharing German and Latin courses with another school two and a half miles away.

Schools also share teachers on a half-time basis for such subjects as music, and they jointly sponsor athletic teams, orchestras, and clubs. Yet sharing requires careful coordination, or rivalries between districts may jeopardize the arrangement, the report says.

Another type of sharing is the more formal consortium or educational service agency.

The third major approach to decline is broadening the relationship between the high school, community residents, and community institutions. But the report notes that community residents who are not involved directly with the schools tend to favor expanding the school's clientele, while other constituencies oppose it.

Begin at Once

The report urges districts to begin at once to recognize potential problems, to make accurate projections, and to establish a planning team representative of all the community.

Although many districts have dealt with the problem of closing elementary schools, the report notes, too few have considered the problems facing high schools. There is "a danger of a false sense of complacency," the report says, because the "flash point of public awareness" is lacking.

"I think the biggest danger at the high-school level is that people don't get excited about enrollment decline," says Ellen Bussard, project director of Educational Facilities Laboratories, the research institution which conducted the study for nie

"There's not the galvanizing and dramatic effect of closing down an elementary school."

Copies of the report can be obtained from the Public Management and Administration Services Division of nie, 1200 19th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.--A.L.

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