The classification changes announced earlier this month by the Kansas High School Activities Asso?cia?tion caused a stir for Marion County?s two largest school districts, Hillsboro and Marion.
Hillsboro High School slipped from 3A to 2A for the first time in 35 years, except for football. Marion barely remained in 3A, but will slip to 2A for football next year.
The classifications are based on high school enrollment formulas.
Beyond the competition level for high school sports and activities is a broader, more far-reaching agenda facing both districts?and the communities that support them: Declining student enrollment district-wide.
Steve Noble, superintendent for USD 410, said turning the enrollment trend around became the centerpiece of the school board?s annual growth retreat.
Noble said he expected a decline in high school enrollment this fall, given the loss of a large senior class and the entrance of a smaller freshman class.
But the extent of the decline was unexpected. At the high school, enrollment dropped from 180 students to 153. District-wide, it was 606 to 557.
Between June and the Sept. 20 count date, 44 students left the district.
?Of the 44, we anticipated 10 of them leaving?they had let us know this was their last year being here,? he said. ?Thirty-four of them, we didn?t.
?Forty-four over a summer is a hit for a school district that only has 600 to begin with,? he added. ?That?s a blow.?
The exit report the district keeps when students leave the district indicated that of the 44 who left, six opted for home schooling, virtual schools or learning center; seven transferred to a neighboring district; 12 transferred to another county; 14 transferred out of state; three left the country. The whereabouts of the remaining three are unknown.
Historically, USD 410?s enrollment exceeded 1,000 students in 1968, soon after consolidation with Lehigh and Durham. The numbers began to decline during the 1970s, then rose slightly from the mid-1980s through mid-1990s, reaching a peak of 759.
USD 410 experienced a modest spike in enrollment to 606 in 2013, and is projected to have a temporary increase next year to 565.
Considering how tightly school enrollments are bunched?Hillsboro had five fewer students than the smallest 3A school?it is possible that Hillsboro could return to 3A next year?if only temporarily.
?A year later, we?re back to where we are now (153),? Noble said.
USD 408, meanwhile, has experienced an enrollment decline each year since 2004, when it registered a headcount of 641 students. This fall, enrollment stood at 506.
?That changes a district tremendously, there?s no question,? he said.
?I worry that next year will be another milestone,? he added. ?We had a milestone of dropping below 600, and now I see us dropping below 500 before long.?
A key factor for USD 408 is that its largest classes are the ones currently in high school.
?Part of the reason we stayed 3A this year and Hillsboro didn?t is those upper classes,? Leiker said. ?This year we?re looking at graduating 45 and bringing 33 to 35 in (for kindergarten), so we have a loss of 10 or 12. That?s the trend we have.?
Leiker speculated that smaller family size and a challenging economy may have contributed to the decline.
?But more important than that, I believe in small rural communities such as Marion, Hillsboro and Peabody, you really have two options: You?re either going to grow or you?re going to shrink. You aren?t going to stay status quo.
?If you don?t have the things that cause growth, you have the opposite effect.
?In my opinion, it?s not just school districts that end up struggling some,? he said. ?I worry about our local businesses because they have to have growth to maintain as well.?
Searching for solutions
Noble and Leiker agree that moving from decline to growth will require collaboration and partnership in their respective communities.
?We can?t just hit the easy button and increase enrollment,? Noble said. ?It just doesn?t happen. It?s really an economic development issue, a community issue, a school issue, it?s churches. It?s all of us banding together to make our community a community people want to move to.?
Leiker said he believes collaboration needs to extend to neighboring communities, too.
?I do think it becomes more and more important for communities to work together?to create opportunities that may be realistic when communities combine their efforts as opposed to trying to work independently or almost against each other,? he said.
Both superintendents said school districts have a role in drawing people to a community, the most important one being doing an outstanding job of educating students.
?When people look at our district, we want their response to be, that?s a quality district,? Leiker said. ?That?s our goal.?
Noble said communities need to provide the services and amenities that might encourage graduates to return to their hometown to raise their own families someday.
?I can probably name 10 families that have done that in the past five years that I?ve been here,? he said. ?Why? The community is safe, it has the amenities they need, they like the school system, it?s convenient. There?s a lot of things these communities have going for them.?
Noble said collaboration is important, but it will take more than that.
?It takes visionaries and people to push through dogmatic thinking that ?it was fine when I was here 30 years ago, it will be fine for the next 30 years.?
?That?s not the way people think in the newer generation today.?
Changing the population trend will require a financial investment, too.
Both Hillsboro and Marion have invested recently in athletic and cultural facilities that catch the attention of young families.
?It takes money to do those things,? Noble said. ?This community, based on its history in voting, generally supports progressive ideas. They support not sitting still.?
Added Leiker: ?Four or five more years of decline will significantly change this district. That?s why growth