More than half of New Jersey’s school districts have shrunk in the last six years, reflecting wider population moves toward urban areas as well as net migration from the state. School districts are shrinking at a rapid rate in the Northwest of the state, as well as in Southern shore communities such as Avalon, Margate and Ventnor.
Click through below for our interactive map of non-charter school district enrollment. The darker blue areas are the districts that have seen the largest percentage decline in enrollment:
The declining school populations in part reflect a wider trend of depopulation of the outer-ring suburbs that is playing out across New Jersey and the Northeastern United States, according to Professor James Hughes, a senior faculty fellow at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers. The suburbs, where millennials were born and grew up, provided economic opportunities for their parents but have little to offer today’s 20- and 30-year olds. There are fewer children today than six years ago in almost all of the districts in Hunterdon, Sussex and Warren counties, and those that grow up there don’t want to stay there.
Shrinking schools also reflect the fact that a generation of New Jerseyans is delaying starting a family. And millennials who are starting to have children still want to live close to where they work–the suburbs are no draw. “When they do start raising families it’s going to be in places that have a walkable downtown, a rail station, access to activities,” Hughes said. The map already shows that districts in the Hudson Valley and some towns around Philadelphia (Haddonfield, for example) have seen a pickup in enrollment.
Total enrollment across the state has been flat over the last few years at around 1.37 million students after dropping to 1.36 million in the immediate aftermath of the recession. The stagnant school enrollment casts doubt over the future economic health of New Jersey, since a young and growing population creates a workforce that draws investment and can help support older generations. If the trend continues, it will likely lead to pressure on some municipalities to consolidate school districts. Potential school mergers are being researched in Hunterdon and Warren counties and the issue has also been raised in some shore towns. Read more about Atlantic County enrollment here:
There are some bright spots in the enrollment numbers, however. Immigration is bolstering enrollment in some districts (see our map and story here). Many charter and some vocational schools have seen a jump in numbers over the last six years. And the number of junior and senior High School students is up 3 percent and 4 percent from six years ago.
But efforts to increase enrollment with the expansion of kindergarten and pre-kindergarten has made little difference and charter schools are not adding students who would not otherwise be in the system, according to our analysis of New Jersey Department of Education data. Route 40 found that enrollment in grades one through 12 in regular non-charter schools is up slightly more (0.76 percent) than total enrollment including preschool and charter schools (up 0.34 percent). And although there are more students enrolled in grades 11 and 12 now than in 2011, the state-wide freshman and sophomore classes are the same size or smaller than the same grades six years ago. That is worrying given the amount of money that is being ploughed into expanding higher education in New Jersey. Projects such as Stockton University’s Atlantic City campus and new buildings at Rowan University are part of a state-backed effort to persuade more New Jersey students to stay in-state for college.
“That’s a real issue I think going forward,” said Hughes. “New Jersey always exports a large number of high school graduates – they go to school out of state. The question is, assuming the number of high school graduates stays the same and we’re expanding the system, are we going to be able to counter that out-of-state movement?”
Hughes noted that to date, high school graduate numbers are still rising in New Jersey. But he cautioned, “When the number of high school graduates starts to decline…which is conceivable, we could have overcapacity in higher education.”
Here is a list of the 10 school districts that have seen the biggest declines in percentage terms since the 2010-11 school year:
1. Avalon Boro, Cape May County
School enrollment in this beach town fell 43 percent, a drop off of 32 students.
2. Califon Boro, Hunterdon
School enrollment in Califon fell 37 percent, a decline of 54 students.
3. Camden City, Camden
The only city district among the biggest decliners, Camden City saw its school enrollment drop by 36 percent or 4,911 students. (Camden schools are under state supervision. Local teachers’ unions have said that budget cuts are part of a wider effort to move students to charter schools at the expense of the city’s public schools.)
4. Saddle River Boro, Bergen
A wealthy suburb that has seen depopulation in recent years: a daycare center closed there because of shrinking enrollment. In the public schools, enrollment is down 34 percent or by 78 students.
5. Bethlehem Township, Hunterdon
Enrollment is down 34 percent or by 185 students.
6. Fredon Township, Sussex
Enrollment is down 33 percent or by 110 students.
7. Milford Boro, Hunterdon
Enrollment is down 32 percent, or by 38 students.
8. Knowlton Township, Warren
Enrollment is down by 31 percent, or by 87 students.
9. Wenonah Boro, Gloucester County
Enrollment is down by 31 percent, or by 78 students.
10. Margate City, Atlantic
Enrollment is down by 30 percent, or by 153 students.
Here is the list of the 10 school districts that have seen the biggest declines by number of students:
1. Camden City, Camden
The city district is the only one that makes the list both by percentage (mostly smaller districts) and raw numbers. School enrollment dropped by 36 percent or 4,911 students.
2. East Orange, Essex
On the edge of Newark, East Orange has seen its school enrollment drop by 20 percent or 1,960 students.
3. Toms River Regional, Ocean
Another mega school district with multiple high schools, Toms River Regional enrollment has fallen by 1,335 students or 8 percent.
4. Washington Township, Gloucester
The South Jersey district has seen enrollment fall by 1,322 students or 16 percent.
5. Brick Township, Ocean
Enrollment has dropped by 1,208 students or 12 percent.
6. Jackson Township, Ocean
Enrollment is down by 1,131 students or 12 percent.
7. Freehold Regional, Monmouth
Enrollment has fallen by 1,052 students or 9 percent.
8. Hamilton Township, Mercer
Enrollment is down by 961 students or 8 percent.
9. Gloucester Township, Camden
Enrollment is down by 904 students or 12 percent.
10. Marlboro Township, Monmouth
Enrollment is down by 864 students or 15 percent.
Click here to download our database with our analysis of county-by-county and district declines, as well as a look at grade-level enrollment. Data downloads are free for Route 40 members – get in touch to request a copy. Proceeds from selling data go to support Route 40’s running costs.