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Waterford - Recent projections forecast a temporary halt in the steady decline of students in Waterford Public Schools.
District enrollment will remain around 2,500 through 2017, before falling into a slight decline, according to a February report by nonprofit educational organization New England School Development Council (NESDEC).
NESDEC Director of Planning Dr. Donald Kennedy attributes the plateau to a stabilizing birthrate in Waterford.
"It looks like the future average is going to be in the 150s," he said.
The average birthrate was 170 in the decade from 1998 to 2007, according to the report. Kennedy said it dipped to 138 in 2009.
The report shows an 18 percent drop in the student population since the 2003-04 school year, when it stood at 3,100. The decrease mirrors trends in districts throughout Connecticut and New England, according to Kennedy.
Assistant Superintendent Craig Powers attributes the decline in enrollment at district schools to loss of jobs due to the recession and the opening of new magnet schools in the area, in addition to birthrate trends.
District data show that the most significant drops in enrollment have corresponded with the opening of magnets. This is true in particular for the high school, which has not yet felt the pain of the recently decreasing birthrate.
In 2010-11, 77 students elected to attend magnet or vocational and technology high schools. This year, the number is 131.
Powers said that the New London Public Schools plan to become an all-magnet district could cause future enrollment declines in Waterford.
"There will be some people in Waterford who will select that," he said.
Kennedy noted that while past trends indicate a plateau followed by a decline, a future economic upswing or improving housing market could draw more families with children to the district and boost the student population.
Enrollment also rises and falls in cycles, he said.
Jody Nazarchyk, who has sat on the Board of Education for 18 years, said she has observed such cycles in the 40 years she has lived in Waterford.
As the elderly leave their homes due to downsizing, moving in with family or death, younger families migrate to the vacated homes.
"I think there is going to be another spike down the road," she said, but added, "It may not impact as much as in past."
She said a wider range of school options due to the increase in magnet schools may hamper bumps in enrollment.
Powers said the district has adapted to the current enrollment decline through careful planning. He cited the reduction from five to three elementary schools 10 years ago.
"We sized it well," he said.
School consolidation included a reduction in elementary school teachers, from 72 in 2004-05 to 59 at present.
"We're had some reductions in force, but the majority has been done just through attrition by not filling openings," Powers said.