HARVARD -- "The people of the town have made their preference for a locally controlled and managed school system very clear."

This is the opening sentence in the draft report of the Harvard School Committee's subcommittee on Strategies to Manage Declining Enrollment.

"Given the pivotal role that the Harvard Public Schools play in our community, preserving the quality of education, the high performance of our students, and the overall integrity and reputation of the school system is viewed as 'mission critical.'"

The draft report was presented to the School Committee on April 8. According to an October 2012 study, the Harvard Public Schools' districtwide enrollment (kindergarten through grade 12) is expected to decline by 24 percent (294 students) over the next decade.

That's atop the loss over the past six years of 108 students. In 2006-2007, there were 1,307 students; this year there are 1,199 students enrolled in the Harvard schools.

The subcommittee is comprised of School Committee members Bob Sullebarger and Kirsten Wright, along with Superintendent Joseph Connelly.

Sullebarger urged caution in interpreting one dramatic graph that plots Harvard's declining student enrollment history against statewide patterns. The state's trend since 1996, illustrated by a gently sloping red line, stayed within three percentage points (above and below) level enrollment figures.

In contrast, the Harvard school enrollment, depicted by a Bromfield-blue colored line, was more jagged. Enrollment spiked two percent from 1996 to 1997, up to 8.19 percent above level enrollment levels, then made a precipitous 12 percentage point drop in 1998, down to -3.7 percent below flat enrollment levels. To a lesser degree, the blue ink continues to see-saw annually thereafter.

Though the graph "jumps out" at readers, Sullebarger said "we cannot look at the statewide projection and hang our hat on it." That's because different forces are driving the Harvard drop.

The declining Harvard birth rate is seen as a major driver. Also contributing are the slowed residential real estate market and the outward migration of students.

Birth rate down

To forecast future enrollments, the subcommittee used the cohort survival rate (CSR) methodology. The CSR approach multiplies by two the number of children born in Harvard and projects that number to be the size of the incoming kindergarten class size five years out.

The number of Harvard births has steadily dropped since 1999. According to data in the report provided by the town clerk's office, recorded births have dropped 42 percent from 1999 (50 births) to 2012 (29 births).

The subcommittee cautioned against calling it a "trend." Still, "What's happened in the past is going to help predict the future," said Connelly. "We do not see dramatic changes in the future."

Home sales slow

Single-family home sales plunged in 2006, according to December 2012 sales data provided by Harvard Realty. Over the same 13-year period, home sales declined 26 percent from 1999 (80 sales) to 2012 (59 sales).

Between the years 2006-2012, there was an average 55 home sales transactions per year. For the prior seven year period, there was an average of 72.5 home sales per year.

The subcommittee notes a "modest" residential construction rate, with a large 55-plus condominium project permitted in 2011. That project, however, is not expected to impact Harvard's enrollment trends.

Harvard educates Devens students under contract with MassDevelopment. The agency is planning a search for developers to build 120 housing units on Grant Road, with initial occupancies contemplated in the later half of 2014.

The subcommittee projected 0.53 students from each new unit, resulting in 64 new students enrolled in the Harvard Public Schools. "This would have a material impact on the overall HPS enrollment."

Student migration in/out

School Choice brings students into the Harvard schools (and, to a lesser degree, Harvard students choice out to other school districts). In whatever direction the pupil heads, each choice student diverts $5,000 from their hometown municipality into the host school district that educates the child. 

Still, Harvard spends $13,500 per pupil on average. The subcommittee notes Harvard's choice program income is "managed in a way that allows this incremental income to be a net-plus for the school budget by avoiding incremental staffing costs."

In fiscal 2014, the Harvard Public Schools will collect $385,000 in choice income. The committee notes the ration of choice-in to choice-out has been stable since 2006.

Between the birthrate and housing market, the report states the enrollment decline will first be felt in grades pre-K through grade 5 at Hildreth Elementary School as soon as the 2014-2015 school year. Over the next four to six years, the declining enrollment wave is to impact the Bromfield School grades 6 through 12.

Over the next 10 years, its projected that HES will lose 109 students; TBS will lose 184 students.

What to do

The subcommittee outlined two alternative strategies to cope with declining enrollment: laying off teachers in proportion to reduced headcount, or retaining faculty to enrich curriculum offerings and provide for smaller classes.

The subcommittee called the second option "the best approach for the schools and the town" but noted the need for a "conversation with the community to build a strong consensus and support for that vision."

While Harvard and Devens student populations are somewhat fixed, Choice enrollment is flexible and determined by the School Committee. The subcommittee flagged the need to study ideal class sizes and the "optimal minimal" number of students at each school.

The report also touched briefly on why Harvard families may opt to educate their children outside of the Harvard Public Schools. Of 33 students who choiced out or opted for charter schools (an outplacement rate of 3 percent), parents of 11 students responded to a phone survey.

Their top three reasons for opting out: 100 percent said they sought an "increased course selection," 91 percent sought to gain a "broader perspective" than the Harvard schools, and 64 percent cited "delivery of instruction" concerns. The subcommittee also included findings of the 2012 parent and student climate survey conducted by the Bromfield School Council.

The survey found that 54.5 percent of students are satisfied with the variety of Bromfield electives (45.5 percent are not satisfied). And in terms of what parents want -- 62 percent of parents are satisfied/somewhat satisfied with the variety of electives offered (24 percent are not).

Parents and students agreed -- there need to be added elective offerings. Suggestions included courses on the arts, languages, history, computer sciences, study skills, business and hands-on course offerings such as woodworking and home economics classes. Teacher feedback supported the findings, with department heads suggesting declining enrollment could be structured in a way to reduce teacher load and reduce class sizes.

"In a time of declining enrollment, how will the School Committee ensure the children of Harvard continue to receive a comprehensive education to the high standard that the community desires?" asked the subcommittee.

Recommendations

Since the decline is expected to be felt first at HES, the subcommittee recommended funneling realized savings to TBS.

"Due to the fact that enrollment decline is projected to impact HES several years before the upper grades at TBS, personnel and program cost savings due to enrollment decline at HES could also be utilized to provide funding for personnel and program needs at TBS."

There were several subject-area recommendations made by the subcommittee. For math, the panel recommended eliminating two to three math classes, shrinking AP and honors math class sizes, and offering new math electives such as college prep probability and statistics courses.

The subcommittee suggests more language sessions for classes in high demand. The panel also suggested beefed-up social studies such as electives on government/civics, comparative religion, political science, philosophy and sociology.

In science, crowded labs would be eased by smaller class sizes. Science electives such as environmental science, astrophysics, astronomy and biochemistry classes were also suggested.

In English, added staff could reduce class sizes to allow for more frequent and higher quality feedback on student assignments and conference time on writing assignments. Added electives could include offerings on Shakespeare, public speaking, media literacy and film critique.

Reaction

What to do with the report is unclear as of yet. "I suppose it's up to us to decide," said Sullebarger.

Connelly suggested that the report should be construed as a long-range plan with no need for action until "benchmarks" are reached. "We're not even projecting enrollment decline would hit the point of implementing some of these recommendations for several years."

"I'd have a different take," responded committee member Keith Cheveralls, who argued there is a "more imminent" need to act.

With limited opportunity to review the document before the full committee meeting, Chairwoman SusanMary Redinger gauged interest in a special meeting to discuss the report. "We can't do justice to everything in here."

"This is a two- to three-hour discussion on its own," agreed Cheveralls.

The full subcommittee set a meeting for Wednesday, April 24, at 9 a.m. in the Harvard Town Hall meeting room to further explore the draft report findings.

Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.