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Stonington class sizes decreasing

While communities across the state grapple with how to handle declining student enrollments over the coming decade, Stonington Superintendent of Schools Van Riley also sees an opportunity to not only promote the variety of opportunities available at the high school but expand offerings for all students.

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.

In the 2005-06 school year, Stonington had 2,569 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 compared to a projected 2,151 in 2016-17. Over that time the number of certified staff members has declinde from 205.5 to 203.9, while the annual school budget has increased from $27.1 million to a proposed $36.4 million in 2016-17.

Riley said that because the decline has been a gradual one here, it has not had a great impact.

“It has had an impact but it's been OK for us,” he said, adding that because the decline will eventually level off he does not see a situation where schools will have empty classrooms.

Riley said the decrease in students has not resulted in corresponding decrease in teachers and other certified staff because of the need to add special education teachers and support staff over that time.

He said the decrease in students has also resulted in a decrease in class sizes to “well under 20” in kindergarten through second grade, a development he called a “good thing.’

The budget has increased despite the decrease in students because of raises for staff, increases in health insurance, special education, utilities and other items and a decrease in state aid.

As for regionalization and sharing costs with other districts, Riley said he is a proponent of doing so in areas such as utilities, food service and health benefits, something he said was done in the California schools districts he worked in before coming to Stoinington.

He said he has discussed the idea of sharing special education costs with his counterparts in Groton and North Stonington.

“There is an economy of scale in working together,” he said. Riley said he expects the population of the high school, which stands at 713 to eventually decrease to about 650. He said he does not think the decrease will hurt the programs the school can offer.

The school board is considering the possibility of making an offer to North Stonington, whose residents will soon vote on a $38 million project to renovate its three schools, to send the approximately 200 students who attend Wheeler High School to Stonington High School.

A feasibility report prepared by Riley for the school board states that the influx of Wheeler students would result in increased acedemic, athletic and exracurriucular opportunities for students at both schools. It would also provide a revenue stream for the town because North Stonington would pay tuition for its students while avoiding the costs of renovating and operating its high school.

Riley said that while magnet schools can be attractive to some students, a comprehensive high school such as Stonington offers students a wide variety of opportunities they do not receive at a magnet school.

“What we need to do is better let families know what opportunities there are here for kids. There’s a lot of kids who go to a magnet school and come back because they miss having a comprehensive school with sports, drama, music and other opportunities,” he said. “Magnet schools can be great but you can be too focused on one thing. A lot of kids aren’t ready to choose a career at 14.”

He said offerings at the high school such as marketing, gaming design, sports medicine and others expose students to a variety of careers.

“We offer a lot of things you don’t get at a magnet school,” he said.

In Huntington Beach, Calif., where he worked as a superintendent of schools before coming to Stonington and which is known as Surf City USA, Riley said high schools offered courses such as surf physical education and surf music.

Riley said he also would like to offer more vocational skills such as welding and carpentry.

“Not everyone wants to go to college,” he said. “Let them find the things they love to do.”


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