The Silence of the Playgrounds
Children of Men, a terrific British flick based on a novel by P.D. James, imagines a future in which some mysterious affliction has left humankind unable to reproduce. In a scene shot at a derelict elementary school, one of the characters — a former midwife — delivers this resonant line:
"As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in."
At the risk of overdramatizing, I felt just a tiny bit like that when I heard our local school enrollment is plummeting, by something on the order of 30 percent.
According to Pat Hopkins, superintendent of School Administrative District #28, which serves the affluent coastal towns of Camden and Rockport, early sign-up for next year's kindergarten class now stands at fewer than 70 students, compared to the level of about 85 that the district would normally expect. Even the higher figure would represent a dramatic drop from current enrollment of more than 100 students in each of grades 7 and 8.
This decline translates into a need to eliminate teaching positions and reduce the number of classes, starting with the lower grades. Normally, says Hopkins, the district employs at least four, sometimes five teachers in each of the lowest grades, K through 2. By next year, that number will drop to three.
Some of the causes of falling enrollment are strictly local; others are consistent with ongoing trends statewide. Overall, Maine's K-12 population has been declining slowly but steadily for several years. The drop has been most pronounced, as you'd expect, in remote and mostly rural areas. But it's been happening more or less everywhere, including "growing" counties in southern Maine and along the midcoast. The state Department of Education estimates that enrollment will fall by about 2 percent annually through 2014 (the last year for which such projections have been made).
Depending on where you live, the picture may be somewhat different. Around here, according to Superintendent Hopkins, enrollment was actually on the increase, in defiance of statewide trends, until just the past couple of years. As recently as 2006, a study commissioned by the S.A.D. predicted that Camden-Rockport Elementary School would need to accommodate nearly 500 students by academic year 2011-12. That figure was used in designing a major expansion of the facility. But as of this year, the student population has instead dropped to 370 — barely three-quarters of the projection — and appears destined to fall still further.
What happened? Three things, from what I can tell.
The first is a broad and rather gloomy economic trend that I've heard described as the Aspen Syndrome (perhaps because it was first noted in that trendy resort town). In simple terms, this problem arises when people who work in a community find they can't afford to live there. That would seem to be the case these days around Camden and Rockport. Ordinary middle- and working-class families increasingly are choosing to settle in outlying towns. Solid numbers are hard to come by, but Hopkins reports that this year alone, she's gotten calls from four separate families who, for economic reasons, are moving out of the district but hoping to gain an exemption to allow their kids to stay in their current schools. I presume — and anecdotal evidence suggests — that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Factor two is the demise of a major local employer, credit-card giant MBNA. The impact of this development was delayed somewhat by a generally buoyant economy and by the arrival on scene of a couple of new telemarketing centers to absorb some of the job cuts. Which was all very well until factor three — the sudden cratering of the national economy — led big employers to scale back right across the board. And of course both of these latter factors serve to accelerate the Aspenizing of the Cam-Rock area, as it continues to transform itself into a retirement and second-home community.
There is no moral here and, I suppose, no deep reason to feel disheartened. Maine has always been a tidal sort of place, our whole history one long sequence of ebbing and flowing. This kind of thing is part of our basic view of the world. No doubt the local playgrounds will fill up again and the school board will start feverishly planning the next round of slapdash expansions. Meantime, I will make a point of renting more cheerful videos.