In a darkened room at Indian Lake Central School District, six students sit quietly and at attention, eyes fixed on the two screens in the front.
Using a mix of smartly edited video clips and live, online instruction, these screens immerse the teenagers in a subject not taught on their own school campus, or by any of their teachers: marine biology.
Indian Lake, with just 120 students in grades K-12, uses distance learning to augment its academic offerings. That gives high school students access to a broader array of courses. The marine biology class is taught over 70 miles away, at Granville High School in Washington County.
“Someone might say, ‘Your course selection—how are you supplementing it?’” said Indian Lake Superintendent David Snide. “And we can say, ‘through distance learning.’”
Snide, who retires in June, has seen Indian Lake’s enrollment fall by more than 50 percent since arriving in the Hamilton County school district in 1989.
Grade sizes range from five to 14 students, and small classes and activities are the norm. A recent band rehearsal drew fewer than 20 students from both the middle and high school. At recess, 11 second- and third-graders played in the snow.
“We’re so small, everybody gets two lockers,” Snide remarked, while walking the halls of a building constructed with a much larger student body in mind.
Throughout the Adirondacks, public school district enrollment has been dropping steadily for decades, mirroring broader population trends in the Adirondack Park.
And while this exodus of young people and families wouldn’t seem to bode well for the region’s shrinking school districts, Snide believes he’s leaving his district well-positioned for the future.
“The technology we have now is going to be key for North Country schools,” Snide said. “We will use it more and more, and in different ways, as we move forward.”
The challenges facing Indian Lake are faced by districts throughout the Adirondacks, and the question of how to provide a robust and well-rounded education amid ongoing enrollment declines is paramount.
It’s a complicated, sometimes thorny, issue, and the idea typically floated as a solution, merging districts, is unpopular. Residents are attached to their local schools, and view closing them as a last resort.
“The school is the heart of the community,” said Daniel Mayberry, superintendent at Keene Central School. “People who don’t have children in the district come to our concerts and plays. It helps bring the community together.”
Keene’s enrollment has been fairly flat during the past decade, fluctuating slightly from year-to-year. In 2010–2011, 157 students were enrolled in the district; in 2020–2021, 159, according to state enrollment data.
To Mayberry, these numbers are good news —a sign that his small district is viable and alive. When enrollment drops, “the merger discussion comes up,” he said. “We’re thankful we’re able to maintain stability.”
In Essex County—one of two counties located entirely within the Adirondack Park—Keene is something of an outlier.
Public school enrollment in Essex County has been dropping steadily, from 4,171 in 2010-2011 to under 3,600 today, a decline of more than 10 percent. In Ticonderoga Central School District, enrollment fell over 19 percent, from 897 to 724. In Lake Placid, it fell 17 percent, from 725 to 598.
In Hamilton County, where Indian Lake Central School District is located, the decline in enrollment has also been dramatic. With a population density of just over three people per square mile, Hamilton is the most sparsely populated county east of the Mississippi River, with fewer than 4,500 year-round residents.
In 2010-2011, there were 546 students enrolled in Hamilton County public schools; in 2020-2021, 397. The decade saw two schools close: the elementary school in Piseco, which opted to send kids to Lake Pleasant in Speculator, and Inlet Common School, a K-6 school that now sends students to Webb.
These enrollment declines aren’t occurring in a vacuum.
Rural areas throughout the U.S. are losing population, hollowing out once-vibrant communities, and the overall birth rate is declining. The result is a country that’s growing older, where families are having fewer children and young adults are in demand. By 2030, one-third of Park residents are projected to be over 60, the Northern Forest Center found.
“Our school population is going to continue to get smaller and smaller,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of the non-profit organization Protect the Adirondacks. “That’s just the reality.”
“There are lots of retirees coming up and contributing very graciously to the community,” said Shaun Gillilland, chair of the Essex County Board of Supervisors. “What we really need is child-rearing, working-age families.”
The Northern Forest Center, a Concord, N.H.-based organization with a mission of strengthening the communities of northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York, sees a way to reverse the Adirondacks’ population decline. It will require addressing “infrastructure challenges, social dynamics and basic economics,” its recent report concluded.
Leslie Karasin, the center’s Adirondack program manager, said the region’s small schools are a strength to build on, and that families who desire a tight-knit, high quality educational experience for their children have plenty of options.
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