More than 700 students have received or are getting their high school diplomas this weekend in Washington County.
And as they move on to the next phase in their lives, fewer than 600 kindergarteners are preparing to take their place.
The disparity between graduating seniors and incoming kindergarteners in several of the county's school districts illustrates a larger trend: Enrollment in Washington County schools has decreased by more than 16 percent since the 1999-2000 school year, affecting how schools fund their programs and the ways in which they operate.
ROBB DeCAMP Special to the Times
As Marietta High School guidance counselor Jim Thrash guides students, the school’s seniors practice Friday for their commencement, to be held Sunday. Throughout the county, the number of students graduating is significantly higher than the number of kindergarten students coming in, creating challenges for the school systems.
"Over the years, we've had to close buildings," said Marietta City Schools Superintendent Harry Fleming. "We used to have K-through-six buildings; now we have K-through-five buildings."
A number of local school officials attribute the decline at least in part to a reduction in employment opportunities in the area.
"You don't have the young families that are contributing to ... the maintenance and growth of your school," said Rod Hineman, a member of the Belpre City Board of Education.
There has also been a decline in birth rates over the last two decades, Hineman said.
"When I was a kid in the '50s, the average family was three to six kids," Fleming said.
The biggest gulfs between outgoing seniors and incoming kindergarteners can be found in the Frontier and Warren Local school districts. Frontier graduated 67 seniors Friday and currently has 38 kindergarteners registered, a decline of 43.2 percent, according to district Treasurer Frank Antill. There were only three projected to enroll at Lawrence Elementary School, so the district eliminated the kindergarten class there.
This year's kindergarten class in the Warren Local school district had 50 fewer students than the graduating class of 2011. An even bigger deficit is anticipated for the upcoming school year, with 148 kindergarteners registered after 227 graduated Friday.
"It'll close by a few students, but I don't think it'll be a substantial difference," said Tom Gibbs, superintendent of both the Warren and Fort Frye Local school districts. "Ten years ago we had almost no difference, and in some situations we were seeing an increase."
Belpre had the largest drop in enrollment from the 1999-2000 school year to the current one at a little more than 25 percent. But the district has one of the smaller gaps between graduating seniors, 72, and incoming kindergarteners, 64, according to current registration numbers. Superintendent Tony Dunn noted there may be as many as 15 children who enroll in kindergarten late, meaning the district could come out ahead in that equation.
"The decline appears to be arresting itself," Hineman said.
Marietta City Schools is projecting 209 students graduating and the same number entering kindergarten, with slight increases in both numbers possible due to summer testing and late enrollments, Fleming said.
It would be only the second time in the last 14 years that the new kindergarten class has exceeded the size of the previous year's graduating class, according to numbers provided by the district.
"It has not been dropping off a ledge or anything," Fleming said of the district's nearly 17 percent enrollment decrease since 2000. "It's just been a slow decline."
Fort Frye High School will graduate 97 seniors on Saturday and currently expects 83 kindergarteners next year. The difference could shrink as additional students enroll.
The Wolf Creek Local district has seen some decline in enrollment since a high in the last decade of 693 students in 2005-06. But there are only seven fewer students now than in the 1999-2000 school year.
"So far we have been fortunate," said Superintendent Bob Caldwell. "I suppose maybe some of it is some folks who have graduated from here like to raise their families here."
Caldwell was quick to add that alumni from other districts also have pride in their alma maters as well.
Following the jobs
Hineman, a teacher in the Belpre district for 25 years, said he's seen too many of his former students leave for greener pastures.
"When they went away to college, they went away from the community," he said. "The doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs, they're in Columbus or ... Atlanta or the Carolinas. ... They have gone where the jobs are."
While changes in the programs and services schools offer - from advanced placement classes to, in Warren's case, high school busing - may drive students' decision to go to another district through open enrollment, Gibbs said many of them will remain in the county, so that alone can't account for the long-term decline seen in the area.
Since 1980, the number of school-age children living in Washington County districts, regardless of where they actually attended school, has decreased by more than 31 percent, according to statistics compiled by Gibbs.
"A big part of that is just the manufacturing opportunities for work have just reduced," he said.
Even plants that have remained in the area for many years are often employing fewer people, Gibbs said.
"Many of them have put in new processes that don't require as much manual labor," said Charlotte Keim, president of the Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce.
Washington County's population decreased by nearly 1,500 people from the 2000 census to 2010's. And for Ohio as a whole, population grew slower than other states, resulting in the Buckeye State losing two Congressional seats.
"A lot of young people are going to the 'hip' areas," Keim said. "What we need to do is make this state hip again."
That's being accomplished in some areas through the biomedical industry, she said, noting advances at university-associated hospitals in Cleveland, Columbus and Akron are attracting doctors to those areas.
Locally, Keim said, shale exploration offers the possibility of more jobs in the region and some companies, like Cool Containers, are hiring, just not on the scale the area once saw with large manufacturers.
"We've got a bunch of small companies that are hiring people, but they're not the big numbers so they don't make the news," she said.
As enrollment declines, school districts have to adjust the way they operate, including closing schools, a process which can make financial sense but often results in hard feelings in the communities where it happens. They also reduce staffing, with most county districts making significant cuts in recent years.
But, as Gibbs pointed out, those cuts don't always keep pace with expenses.
"You have the loss of revenue associated with the loss of students coupled with rising expenditures" on everything from utilities to busing to employee expenses like salaries and insurance, he said.
With the state funding formula - declared unconstitutional multiple times due to its reliance on property taxes - still in flux, that often leaves districts looking to the voters to approve additional funding, something Belpre has not been able to do in recent years.
"As persons get older, they don't want or can't afford to pay the tax increases," Hineman said.
Gibbs said at a recent Warren board meeting that even if the declines stop, it's unlikely the trend will see a significant reversal.
"The population of Washington County, it may level off at some point, but something drastic would have to happen for it to increase dramatically," he said.