Lyme-Old Lyme seeks new students

Similar to most school districts across Connecticut, the Lyme-Old Lyme public school district is experiencing declining student enrollment.

But Lyme-Old Lyme school officials are trying an approach typically uncommon among most public schools districts: marketing to attract new students and families and retain current ones.

Superintendent of Schools Ian Neviaser said the approach represents a shift in how public school districts think about student enrollment. While magnet schools and private schools have advertised and recruited for years, it’s a new concept for Lyme-Old Lyme.

“I think because of this declining enrollment, the paradigm has shifted, and we can no longer be passive recipients of students,” said Neviaser. “We have to go out and actively recruit students to come to our schools.”

The district is targeting four groups: current Lyme-Old Lyme students whom the district wants to retain; students from the towns of Lyme and Old Lyme who attend private or magnet schools, but whom the district would like to consider returning to Lyme-Old Lyme Schools; students and families considering moving to the area; and tuition-based students who live in another town.

The marketing campaign includes a newspaper advertisement about a recent open house at the high school and an upcoming video showcasing the school system.

The district is also researching billboard, radio and television advertisements, and hopes to keep in touch with prospective students and families who have expressed interest in the district through mailings, phone calls and emails.

Between 2010 and 2015, Connecticut's population of school-aged children decreased by 3.46 percent, the sixth highest rate in the nation, according to data from the U.S. Census. By 2025, the student population is projected to decline by nearly 10 percent to 631,241 students, according to the Connecticut State Data Center.

Experts link decreasing student enrollment to a variety of factors, from a decline in the state’s birth rate, as people have fewer children and have them later, to people leaving the state for job opportunities.

The Lyme-Old Lyme district enrolls about 1,324 students, about 221 fewer students than about 10 years ago. Projections from the New England School Development Council show that in four years, Lyme-Old Lyme is expected to have 196 fewer students.

In light of declining enrollment, the Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education adopted in 2011 a multi-year redistricting plan to transition Center School on Lyme Street in Old Lyme from an elementary school, for grades 3 to 5, to a facility for administrative offices and pre-kindergarten classes. Under the plan, Mile Creek School in Old Lyme and Lyme Consolidated School would stand as the district’s two kindergarten through fifth grade schools.

In addition to the plan, which was completed this year, the district has been discussing over the past several years how to maintain programs as fewer and fewer students are enrolled in the school system, said Neviaser. For example, maintaining band requires a certain number of students.

Neviaser said a small percentage of the district’s student population is leaving for magnet schools or private schools, and the percentage has been declining. But because Lyme-Old Lyme is a relatively small school district, even a small percentage has an impact and “every student counts,” he said.

The district enrolls five tuition-paying students from other towns, and has been averaging three to five students over the past few years. The students mostly stay for four years, but some stay for two years, said Neviaser.

The district budgeted $10,000 this year to begin its advertising initiative and test the market, and is proposing $50,000 for next year.

Neviaser said the small district offers “a private school experience in a public school setting.” He wants to make families and students aware of the school district’s successes and programs.

“We think our class sizes are comparable to some of the most elite private schools out there,” he added. “Certainly our academic success rivals any school statewide. We had the sixth highest SAT scores in the entire state last year.

“Those are pretty impressive numbers, and our list of college acceptances for students, again, is up there with the top schools in the state and the nation, so the data certainly supports the fact that we have very strong programs here, and we believe in order to continue to maintain those, we need to continue to bring in students.”

k.drelich@theday.com

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