Surprisingly, the pandemic has been pretty good to local high school enrollments

  • Chart shows long, slow decline of enrollment in all grade in New Hampshire public schools. NH Dept. of Education—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 11/26/2022 12:00:29 PM

The pandemic has generally been an enrollment disaster for public schools. Students who were barely hanging on in person fell away over Zoom and haven’t come back.

Except in Concord area high schools, it seems.

In the three years of the pandemic era, total enrollment at seven high schools in and around Concord has been flat, going from 4,380 in October 2019 to 4,371 in October 2022. That decline of just 9 students or 0.2% is less than the margin of reporting error. (Detailed numbers can be seen at the bottom of this story.)

By comparison, enrollment in statewide high schools fell 4.4% over that same period, from 49,444 to 47,288.

The Concord area’s pandemic trend is particularly surprising because up until COVID-19 hit, area high school enrollment had been declining right along with the rest of the state. For example, in the previous three-year stretch between October 2016 and October 2019, those seven area high schools saw enrollment fall 5.7%, much greater than the statewide decline of 3.1%.

The Monitor will look at pandemic-era enrollment trends in local elementary and middle schools next week.

So what happened to local high schools since 2019 that arrested their enrollment decline? Good question.

The Concord area, like all of New Hampshire and most of the Northeast, has been shedding pupils for years due to regional demographic trends in which people have smaller families. Enrollment at Concord High School, to give an example, was almost 1,900 in 2006 and now is less than 1,500.

And New Hampshire’s birth rate shows no sign of producing hordes of new students any time soon: It’s currently second-lowest in the country. State policies that shift public tax money to private schools and homeschooling via the Education Freedom Accounts can’t help.

“For the past two decades, student enrollment in New Hampshire has experienced a steady decline. While the pandemic accelerated declines in the fall of 2020 with a 5% drop, there was a slight uptick of enrollment in 2021 reflecting a COVID rebound, followed by a more typical decrease of 1.1% in 2022,” said Frank Edelblut, commissioner of education, in a prepared statement.

Overall, this means that if the pandemic sometimes has halted the enrollment decline in Concord area high schools it would be very big news.

It’s too early to tell but I suspect this is just a blip, perhaps caused by the effect of the pandemic on employment and housing in the region as compared to working in other parts of the state. It also could be a function of the high schools we chose to include in the sample: Bow and Hopkinton schools both fell as much as the state did on a percentage basis and Concord wasn’t much better, whereas Pembroke Academy, Franklin and Pittsfield saw their enrollment rise – sharply in Pittsfield’s case.

Whatever the cause, it’s a reminder that the old saw that “prediction is hard, especially about the future” still applies.

Here are the numbers for high schools (grades 9 to 12):

SCHOOL – 2019 – 2022 – % change 19-22

Concord – 1,496 - 1,467 -1.9%

Bow – 630 – 603 – -4.2%

Franklin – 253 – 270 – +6.7%

Hopkinton – 315 — 305 – -3.2%

Merr. Valley - 786 – 784 – -0.2%

Pembroke – 757 – 783 – +3.5%

Pittsfield – 143 – 159 – 11.0%

REGION – 4,380 – 4,371 – -0.2%

STATE – 49,444 – 47,288 – -4.4%

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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