LYME-OLD LYME — Over the last five years, the student population of Lyme – Old Lyme Schools has fallen 10 percent. Total enrollment, according to the state Department of Education, has fallen to 1,263 students, and the incoming first grade class has just 60 students.
But… the incoming kindergarten class has jumped to 77 students.
“I think we are starting to see things going the other direction,” said Ian Neviaser, the superintendent of schools for Lyme-Old Lyme. “Last year we gained 33 kids during the school year. That’s unheard of. We’ve never had that sort of interest in the schools.”
In addition, this summer the school district has on average been fielding calls from two families per week interested in enrolling their children or wishing to visit the schools.
“Some are moving to the area, just this afternoon we had a family move here from Alabama, and some want to send their kids as tuition students,” Neviaser said. This year, Lyme Old Lyme Schools has enrolled 11 tuition students, two more than last year, at $19,000 each. In addition, 29 students have enrolled for the expanded age-4 pre-kindergarten class.
Lyme-Old Lyme is not unique in it’s declining enrollments. Every town in the region, except New London, has seen a decline. Enrollment as fallen 6 percent in East Lyme, dropped 9 percent for Regional School District 4 and Old Saybrook and East Haddam enrollments have both dropped 16 percent. Statewide, the public school population has dropped by almost 20,000 students, according to the state Department of Education.
No other school district, however, is seeing the possibility of a turn around. According to Neviaser, the reason for that is all due to a marketing campaign that began three years ago as an attempt to slow and potentially halt the loss of students. The school board budgeted $50,000 per year for a marketing campaign to promote Lyme Old Lyme Schools.
“We are working with a subsidiary of The Day called D2. We’ve really focused this campaign in local papers and through the radio, an updated website, television ads and advertising in various magazines,” Neviaser said. “It has gone beyond what we envisioned and helped our reputation in the surrounding area. Honestly, it’s a bragging tool that helped us recruit staff too.”
The 11 tuition students that have been recruited since the campaign began have more than covered the cost of marketing.
“All you need is 2.5 tuition students to cover the cost and we now have 11,” Neviaser said. “We are actually making money for the town off this.”
If the population continues to decline at a similar rate for Lyme-Old Lyme – on average 3 percent a year according to the state Department of Education – the district would likely have to cut programs that make it one of the top-ranked public school systems in Connecticut. This year Lyme-Old Lyme ranked 12th for English and Language Arts and 7th for Math by percent of students in level 3 and 4 in the statewide SAT tests.
“If the population continues to decline we couldn’t sustain the programs we have like AP classes, arts, music, the band and sports teams,” Neviaser said. “We aren’t a huge district anyway, so for our size we offer a lot more than most. You can’t run an AP French class with one student, so we can’t continue to lose students.”
The next few years will certainly see a decline in the high school population with an incoming freshman class of just 104, and the three middle school classes all with enrollments of less than one hundred. On the other hand, if the elementary enrollment continues to grow like the incoming kindergarten class, Neviaser said he is not worried about cutting programs at the school.
As of yet, no other school in the region or state has launched a campaign like Lyme-Old Lyme.
“I get a lot of good-natured flak at the superintendent meetings I go to because other districts are not doing what we are,” Neviaser said.