Fewer tips of hats to grads

Discussions on consolidating or merging schools is never simple arithmetic when emotions get factored into the equation. With the annual celebration of high school graduation only a week away, just how much smaller are those classes locally today than they were more than a decade ago?

According to the state Education Department, those groups are smaller — by about 13 percent or 97 students.

The biggest decline can be seen in the area’s second largest district in Fredonia, which in 2005 graduated about 133 students. In the most recent listings, the state says 103 were graduates in the 2016 class.

That is more than just a decline of 23 percent. It also speaks to our region’s affluency.

Fredonia, when considering the demographics, happens to be one of the richer districts in Chautauqua County behind Chautauqua Lake and Southwestern. When its class sizes decrease, it is a sure sign there is less wealth in the region.

Two districts did show some growth in graduates while another remained relatively stable. Again, these statistics come from the New York state report cards.

So what exactly are the numbers? Locally, the state says area graduation rates increased by 27 students from 2015 to 2016 with 1,309 graduates last year. That sounds promising, but overall population in the county is down from 135,000 in 2005 to the current 129,000.

Our county also has gotten older, not younger. Here is a breakdown of area graduates, with the 2005 number first followed by the 2016 figure:

¯ Brocton — 49, 42.

¯ Cassadaga Valley — 80, 65.

¯ Chautauqua Lake — 72, 68.

¯ Dunkirk — 112, 114.

¯ Forestville — 39, 49.

¯ Fredonia — 133, 103.

¯ Gowanda — 78, 72.

¯ Pine Valley — 42, 42.

¯ Ripley — 21, zero.

¯ Silver Creek — 81, 70.

¯ Westfield — 54, 42.

A number in that list that stands out most has to be Ripley. Its last graduating class was in 2013 and, ironically, had 22 members — one more than the 2005 graduates. Since then, Ripley students from grades seven to 12 have attended Chautauqua Lake Central. By almost all accounts, the bus ride is a bit longer but it is a match that is working quite well as Ripley students benefit from a wider array of options in educational programs and sports.

More alarming is the number of graduates in Chautauqua Lake. Since it absorbed the Ripley students, its numbers remain lower.

Merger votes for Westfield and Ripley, Fredonia and Brocton as well as Brocton and Westfield have all been defeated in the past decade. Those defeated efforts, however, seemed to bolster the premise of increased sharing — especially when it comes to athletics. In football, Fredonia, Brocton and Westfield are a trio of one while the Silver Creek-Dunkirk track team, which had plenty of recent success, also is combined.

There are plenty of lessons that take place in athletics. But learning in classrooms is the greatest gift our children receive from dedicated area teachers who are a team of many.

There’s strength in the number of educators — and increased student enrollment. County population has the potential to grow down the road with state-backed plans for Athenex and the National Comedy Center.

Until that happens, however, classes will continue to shrink unless schools merge or have an agreement that is similar to Chautauqua Lake and Ripley. Clymer and Panama are currently in serious consolidation discussions to better the educational experience for those students. That is a bright spot.

But staying the course, while the most comfortable option, hinders the learning experience of our students — and future graduates.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.