By Courtney Kendler
Holt Journal staff reporter
It’s 7 p.m. on an early October evening and tensions are high as parents, teachers and students fill the school board meeting room at Holt High School’s North Campus.
After several minutes of discussion, Executive Director of Curriculum and Staff Development Dr. Ruth Riddle addressed the growing crowd.
“Based on our internal data, we projected being down about 50 students and we’re right on target with our budget projections,” she said.
According to information gathered from MISchoolData.org, which publishes student count rates, there were 5,803 students in Holt Public Schools during the 2013-14 school year. The district saw a loss of 87 students in the next year, dropping to 5,716.
According to Riddle, there are many possible contributing factors to the decline in enrollment, including the rise of charter schools, school of choice options and the rising trend of having smaller families.
“The birth rates in our community and in Michigan overall are lower than they were 10 years ago,” said Hornak. “Further compounding the reduction in students is the fact we are graduating classes that are larger than our incoming kindergarten classes. As a result, our numbers are lower.”
“I agree with Dr. Hornak’s analysis,” said University of Washington Professor of Public Finance and Civic Engagement Justin Marlowe. “Mostly because there’s a lot of demographic data that suggests families today are having fewer children overall.”
According to statistics from the United States Census Bureau, the number of households that have children under the age of 18 has stayed at 38 million since 2000, despite a 9.7 percent growth in the population.
“I think that as long as there is a decline in birth rates and an increase in families moving out of the state, enrollment will continue to decrease,” said Riddle. “What I do like is that we saw a smaller number of students leaving the district this year than we did last year.”
Because enrollment was expected to decline, school officials were able to build a budget based on a loss of students, Hornak said. “In this case, Holt public built a budget on a reduction of 50 students and it appears we will be near that number.”
Several weeks after the school board meeting, information was released that showed the district had an actual loss of 52 students this year.
Jennifer Bertram, the mother of two Holt High School graduates, believes one of the major reasons the district has seen a loss in students is because of “the switch.”
The switch refers to the creation of a North Campus, which is across the street from the high school, where only seniors have classes. The intent was for seniors to get a feeling for what it would be like to be in college and to be responsible for getting to class on time.
“There was a sharp increase in the number of residents leaving (the district) beginning in 2013-14,” said Bertram. According to her, the switch was slated to take effect during the following school year, but the board decided to delay it for another year. “I suspect many people had moved their children in advance of that decision,” she said.
“We were passionately opposed to the plan laid out by the district…” said Bertram. “With seniors in our North Campus, there are many, many more students who are transferring between the two buildings during each and every hour of the day. It is a logistical nightmare for the students…and a safety hazard that is completely unnecessary,” she said.
While Riddle empathizes with parents and their concern over safety, she said, “I think it’s healthy for students to learn how to navigate campuses before they leave to go to one where none of us are there to hold their hands…I think that our kids are smart enough and that our parents raised our kids to be more aware and that overall, this is good for students.”
School officials are confident that the district will recover from the drop in enrollment and are even making use of popular social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, in an effort to communicate more with parents and students.
“This year we started a comprehensive communications campaign,” said Hornak. “This has afforded us the opportunity to share news immediately with our public. It has been extremely well received and has allowed us to build trust with our community.”
“We really have been about the business of making what we do visible and I think it’s a very positive way to increase communication,” said Riddle. “Social media allows us the opportunity to communicate at a higher level with parents and provide multiple ways for parents to access that information.”
If enrollment does continue to decline, Marlowe suggests the district consider several different forms of consolidation. “The most controversial (form of consolidation) is when districts formally merge into a single district,” said Marlowe. The less controversial, and much more common practice, is when districts share staff, equipment, buildings and other resources without formally consolidating, he said.
According to Hornak, there are no plans to close any buildings or consolidate with other districts at this time.
“We have amazing things happening daily…and we are working hard to restore the pride in the district,” said Hornak.