Editorial: Community-wide discussion on the future of B.I. School needed

Sun, 03/24/2013 - 1:17pm

As we report in this edition, projections show that enrollment at the Block Island School will drop below 100 within ten years because of falling birth-rate trends. A decade ago the school population was just under 150 and now it hovers slightly above 110. According to a report by the New England School Development Council, school enrollment may just be 99 students by 2022.

School Superintendent Robert Hicks felt that the trend was enough of a concern to recommend that the entire Block Island community engage in a larger conversation about the future of the school. Members of the school committee and some members of the public agreed. It is not a stretch to say that the challenges facing the school mirror the challenges facing the island itself.

Questions about how to deal with a declining school population — such as possibly combining classes to accommodate the smaller numbers — are easier to answer than others.

The most important question to ask is why people are leaving the island for good. As former School Committee member and current Town Councilor Sean McGarry said, he believes the declining numbers are directly tied in to the economy of the island and the lack of affordable housing.

This may seem obvious to anyone who lives here, but saying it out loud is the first step toward trying to come up with answers. Block Island already has a higher percentage of affordable housing units than mandated by state law, but if we need more affordable units, what can we do to help get them built?

Other questions concerning the socialization of our young people within such small class sizes are equally important. As we know, some families seeking broader life experiences for their children sometimes decide to enroll in schools on the mainland. Even such reasonable decisions, however, impact the island and affect the school population and the social lives of our young people.

In upcoming issues, The Block Island Times will undertake a series of stories to ask and attempt to answer some of these questions regarding the school and the economy of the island.

McGarry said something with which we wholeheartedly agree: “We need to foster a sustainable year-round community.”

The hard part will be figuring out how to get there. By discussing it as a community, we will begin the process of reaching that goal.