Long Island has seen a 10 percent drop in the number of children age 9 or younger in the first decade of the 21st century, a decline already being felt in some school districts in Nassau and Suffolk as they look for ways to reduce classes to accommodate the smaller numbers.
The dip in the number of Long Island's youngest residents - there were an estimated 40,500 fewer in 2009 than in 2000, according to the U.S. Census - mirrors declines throughout large parts of the Northeast and Midwest. But it defies a modest increase nationally, fueled largely by gains in other parts of the nation, experts said.
"We've been used to having, at least in the suburbs, families with children. That's Americana," said William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "Now, we'll have to get used to living in a society that's older."
Seth Forman, chief planner for the Long Island Regional Planning Council, said fewer children may simply be a reflection of lower birth rates in the 1970s, reducing the pool of adults now between 30 and 40 having families. The decline may be cyclical, he said, and the long-term effects yet to be known.
Some schools are emptier
Still, school districts and others throughout Long Island are taking note of the decline. Overall public school enrollment has decreased across Long Island since 2005, and this trend is expected to continue for at least another year, according to the April 2009 annual report on Nassau and Suffolk's public school enrollment trends by Western Suffolk BOCES.
"I know that some districts have talked about closing one or more of their neighborhood schools," said Wendell Chu, East Islip superintendent and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.
"In the kind of economic times we're in, everything is on the table." East Islip has projected a 3.3 percent drop in enrollment next year.
Reflecting the changing ethnic landscape of Long Island, the decrease in the number of children Islandwide has been most dramatic among white children, who made up 59 percent of the total in 2009, down from 71.5 percent in 2000. "It's really an enormous racial makeover," said Forman, who analyzed the census data.
Quality of life affected
He suggested the overall loss of children should be taken seriously, noting that children are generally thought to add to a region's "quality of life, create constituencies for parks, public safety, good schools and civic participation."
Pearl Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group, linked the loss of young children to fewer young adults, many chased off the Island, in her view, because of the high cost of living.
This loss of young adults "has a very deleterious impact on the workforce because it means the parents of these children who are leaving are in the prime working ages," Kamer said.
And Frey said it also sets up a "competition for resources" between families with young children and an older generation, each with different priorities.
For instance, he suggested families with children would be looking for public resources for schools, "while people in older groups are more concerned with Social Security and Medicare."
Local school officials confirmed they have been seeing a decline in the number of young children since at least the middle of the decade, but noted not all school districts are suffering losses.
Officials indicate they are closely monitoring the trend, with some saying they think the decline is stabilizing.
In the current school year, enrollment dipped by 1,000 students, or 0.3 percent from the year before, Paula Klingelhoefer, executive director of Western Suffolk BOCES, said in an interview.
Klingelhoefer said the "greatest declines" are in the youngest elementary school grades.
She noted, however, that, "Some schools see an increase in enrollment. It really does fluctuate."
Henry L. Grishman, Jericho schools superintendent who is also president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, said his district had enrollment declines in kindergarten through third grade.
"Ten years ago, at our height, we were definitely running 100 kids more per grade level, in some cases more than that."
He said the district has reduced some classes as a result, but is not considering closing schools, something only a few school districts on Long Island have even considered this year.
Grishman said families continue to move into Jericho, and that while the pace may have slowed due to the recession, he believed the drop in young pupils was cyclical.
Overall, Chu said the decline in children may not be "as severe as anticipated."
And with an influx of immigrants coming directly to Suffolk County communities, bypassing the city, he suggested census estimates may not accurately reflect the numbers, noting undercounts had "traditionally" affected immigrant and minority communities.
"I think that may change the demographic look as we move forward into the next decade," Chu added.
That shift will bring with it challenges that Long Island schools must address, one expert said.
"The challenge for Long Island is that a lot of the newer, higher birth concentrations are or will be in communities that have fewer resources and poorer performing schools, primarily in minority communities," said Lawrence Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
"And if we continue to educate an increasing number of our school children in the poorest and poorest performing schools, we will be in big trouble economically," Levy added.
LI's vanishing young population
Nationally, the census shows an increase in children, 0 to age 9, from 39.7 million in 2000 to 41.9 million in 2009, a 5.5 percent increase. But on Long Island - and New York State - it's a different story:
Number of children aged 0 to 4 years old: 1,239,417
Number of children aged 5 to 9 years old: 1,351,857
Number of children aged 0 to 4 years old: 1,223,080
Number of children aged 5 to 9 years old: 1,202,497
Number of children aged 0 to 4 years old: 186,932 (Nassau: 86,628; Suffolk: 100,304)
Number of children aged 5 to 9 years old: 205,882 (Nassau:96,192; Suffolk: 109,690)
Number of children aged 0 to 4 years old: 167,734. (Nassau: 74,649; Suffolk: 93,085).
Number of children aged 5 to 9 years old: 184,503. (Nassau: 84,463; Suffolk: 100,040).
Minority children from 0 to age 9 comprised 28.6 percent in 2000 and by 2009, they were estimated to comprise 41 percent. Non-Hispanic whites in this age group went from 71.5 percent in 2000 down to an estimated 59 percent in 2009.