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Small schools join up to keep sports, arts

Student Trevor Hare plays the piano while waiting

Student Trevor Hare plays the piano while waiting to perform during a dress rehearsal for a high school show in Lyndonville. (March 19, 2013) Credit: AP

LYNDONVILLE -- It was during the traditional performance-night farewell circle, as students from two schools tearfully gushed about how they'd miss one another, that high school musical director Jennifer Trupo knew her shrinking district's decision to accept cast and crew members from a neighboring town had been a good one.

"They couldn't wait until the next year so they could be together again," Trupo said, recalling the backstage scene before their production of "Legally Blonde" at Lyndonville High School last spring. Lyndonville is about 30 miles north of Buffalo.

It's become a familiar story as declining enrollments have school districts looking outside of their own student ranks as a way to keep programs like theater and sports.

Declining birthrates

Demographics consultant Paul Seversky, who analyzes data for districts considering reorganizing services, cited declining birthrates as people wait longer to have children and have fewer once they start.

"In situations where schools do not have enough students to field an athletic team, this is a great alternative to simply dropping the programs," he said.

The New York Public High School Athletic Association, to accommodate the trend, last month revised a regulation so small teams that combine are not automatically bumped into a more competitive division. Only a portion of a smaller school's enrollment will count toward the total enrollment number that determines classification.

The state association has not tallied the number of combined teams in recent years but acknowledged at least 100 new teams for the 2012-13 school year. They ranged from single-sport mergers, like Ballston Spa and Stillwater in Alpine skiing, to full slates of sports. Roscoe and Downsville, near the Catskills, have a 12-sport agreement that includes teaming up in football, soccer, girls' basketball, golf, baseball and cross country.

East Aurora, outside Buffalo, and Bolton are among districts considering reaching out to neighboring districts for future seasons. Bolton, near the Adirondacks, is down to 202 students, from 250 in 2011.

Quid pro quos

In exchange for opening its stage to Medina High School, which did away with its drama program in budget cuts, Lyndonville High sent students to prop up Medina's football and soccer teams and play in its championship marching band.

"I'll be upfront: Not everything was fantastic," said Medina Superintendent Jeff Evoy. "When you get a player from another school that's coming in that's getting more playing time or makes the team over a student from the home district, that can make for some hard feelings."

But "it's all about giving kids opportunities," he said.

In New York's southwest corner, the idea of combining high school football's Maple Grove Red Dragons with the Chautauqua Lake Thunderbirds -- teams that lined up against each other this past season -- has not been widely accepted. The Red Dragon faithful worried about losing a generations-long tradition of winning, something less important for the newer Chautauqua Lake district.

Nonetheless, the districts agreed to combine students for at least next season.

Across New York, school enrollments have been declining since 2001-02, according to the state Education Department, going from 3.3 million to about 3 million public and private school students now.

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