‘Dramatic’ enrollment losses put Interlochen elementary on brink of closure

Oct 29, 2015

Credit David Cassleman

The number of kids enrolled in public schools is dropping across northern Michigan.

That’s putting pressure on school districts to downsize because state funding is based directly on the number of kids enrolled.

Traverse City Area Public Schools could soon close up to three elementary schools to save money, including Interlochen Community School.

Failure to attract new students

Kelly Houghton’s son just started going to Interlochen Community School.

“We had started out at a different school and it just didn’t work out and so we brought him over here,” Houghton says. “And you know he seems to be doing really well. The kindergarten teacher is amazing.”

Houghton says she understands why the district would close the school, but she does have concerns.

“When they plan on closing it down, are they going to do it soon,” Houghton asks? “Is my son going to have to relocate again? Is it going to be a longer bus ride for him if he ends up having to ride the bus if I can’t take him?”

Interlochen Community School uses an alternate curriculum called International Baccalaureate.

Traverse City Area Public Schools also uses International Baccalaureate at the International School at Bertha Vos. That’s another school that could close.

The district hoped this learning style would attract new students and fill empty seats. But it hasn’t worked.

“The IB curriculum is working wonders at Interlochen,” Paul Soma, Superintendent of TCAPS, says. “But what’s not trending upwards is people’s decision to go there. That’s actually trending downward at a dramatic pace.”

Rapid declines

There are 173 students enrolled at Interlochen Community School this year. But the school was nearly twice as big ten years ago.

“TCAPS works in an environment of declining enrollment, declining revenues and aging facilities,” Soma says. Declines are happening across the district.

Soma worries the state will get involved if the financial situation gets much worse in the district.

That’s why TCAPS is considering closing three schools.

It might not close any, but Soma says the future doesn’t look good.

“The trend looks to be continuing downward,” Soma says. “There are people that suggest, ‘oh, it’s going to change’ … but that’s not what’s happening.”

“We have to respond to what reality is and not what might be in the future.”

Regional struggles

From Frankfort to Kalkaska, the entire region is losing students.

The total number enrolled in the Traverse Bay Intermediate School District is down ten percent in ten years.

Some districts are worse off than others, like Suttons Bay Public Schools, which have lost thirty percent of enrollment since 2005.

But others are doing okay.  

Jason Jeffrey, an assistant superintendent at the Intermediate School District, says Kingsley Area Schools have made modest gains recently.  

“We think that that has to do with affordable housing,” Jeffrey says. “It has to do with more school-aged children and families being able to move into that district because of housing costs.”

Kingsley is an exception though, and Jeffrey thinks school districts will continue to grapple with closing schools because of budget woes.

Things could change for the better of course.

“Hopefully as the economy continues to rebound we’ll have the potential to counteract that,” Jeffrey says, “by having more folks with school-aged children choose to live and work in the region.”

Community meeting Thursday night

TCAPS last dealt with closing schools in 2007.

It took two years to decide whether to close any schools last time, but TCAPS plans on moving quickly this time around.

The district will make recommendations to the school board in either December or January, and a final decision will come from the board in March.

Paul Soma worked for the district when it last closed schools. In fact the neighborhood school where his kids went was shut down.

“Our school district wrapped their arms around my children,” Soma says, “just like we will wrap our arms around all the children affected by any potential changes we make.”

Paul Soma will address parents and the community at Interlochen Community School on Thursday night, when there’s a meeting about the potential closings.