By Sarah Earle
For years, the tiny community of Waterville Valley fretted over enrollment in its neighborhood school. At its peak enrollment, Waterville Valley Elementary School had around 45 students spread across grades K-8, but over the years, the numbers had waned. Last school year, just 17 students attended the school, and in the spring, only 11 had confirmed they were coming back for the 2020-21 school year.
“We were really in a position where we were very concerned,” said Waterville Valley School Board Member Tim Smith. “We were actively trying to come up with initiatives to make our school more attractive.”
Those initiatives proved largely unnecessary. Amid a historic pandemic, small schools in secluded towns have suddenly become very attractive. In the months since the coronavirus pandemic first arrived in the United States, urbanites have steadily been fleeing big cities — and they’re ending up in places like Waterville Valley, where school enrollment has ballooned to 60.
With its abundance of lakes and mountains and proximity to major cities, New Hampshire is a popular state for second homes: More than 10% of housing units in the state are vacation homes, with the highest concentrations in the Northern counties. The region’s low population density and relatively low COVID-19 numbers add to the allure for city dwellers with second homes here or the ability to pull up roots and purchase a home. The exodus has affected different communities and schools in different ways, presenting both benefits and challenges.
“They’re definitely coming in droves. It’s wonderful.”
Enrollment spikes in quaint towns like Waterville Valley Elementary School are not unprecedented. The town also saw a swell in enrollment in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre and 9/11 attacks.
“It seems as though the major driver to schools like ours is worry,” said Smith, whose twin 10-year-olds have attended the elementary school since kindergarten.
Dominated by the Waterville Valley Ski Resort, the town is home to a mix of retirees and school-age families. The 2018 census puts the population at 243, but Smith said it’s climbed to the mid 400s since he moved there six years ago.
The tiny K-8 school boasts high test scores and spends more per pupil than any other town, while enjoying some of the lowest property tax rates in the state.
Those numbers belie the budgetary realities at the school, said Smith, who is general manager of the ski resort.
“We have a hard time keeping the building erect,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to put siding on the building … and fund our playground. It took us years to put new windows in.”
Last year, Waterville Valley Elementary School shut down portions of the building and condensed classrooms for more efficiency. The school board attempted to start a preschool as a means of building enrollment, a proposal that failed at the annual school district meeting. In June, they cut tuition for non-resident students in hopes of attracting people from outside Waterville Valley.
Then, the phone calls started coming. “We got 10 more and 10 more and 10 more,” Smith said. “They’re definitely coming in droves. It’s wonderful.”
Jennifer Pires and her family were visiting their second home in Waterville Valley in March when they heard Boston schools were shutting down. The weekend trip stretched into a months-long adventure. “My husband and I decided that there was more for the kids to do here,” said Pires, who owns her own graphic design firm. “It was really sort of an easy decision.”
A more difficult decision confronted them this summer, when they learned the school their two daughters were attending in Boston would remain remote in the fall. After securing a leave of absence from the school, which they’d waited two years to get into by lottery, they opted to take up residence in Waterville Valley for the year.
“We want them to be outside. We want them to be in a small school environment where they know the kids,” Pires said. “It’s an amazing school. We love it.”
The family is eager to give back to the community that made room for them. Pires sits in on various board meetings and has joined the school PTA, along with many of the other new parents.
“I’m really grateful for the community,” she said. “Everyone’s been really welcoming.”
“We have teachers who can’t afford to live here.”
As school was starting last month, SAU 9 Superintendent Kevin Richard was gearing up for bus monitor duty and substitute teaching stints. Pinch hitting is nothing new for Richard, who’s lived and worked in the northern part of the state for 30 years and sees a lot of people come and go. But this year, he’ll be filling more gaps than usual.
Stretching from the historic Mount Washington Hotel to the edge of the Lakes Region, SAU 9 encompasses a mix of affluent ski-resort communities, rural towns with high percentages of poverty, and tourist-dependent areas with a large transient population.
The pandemic has brought an influx of families into towns like Jackson and Conway, which have a high concentration of vacation homes.
“Families from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island … with their schools being in jeopardy, that’s why they’re here,” Richard said. “People are also saying, ‘you know, there’s more fresh air, less people’ … I think we’re seeing the impact of that.”
At the same time, SAU 9 schools, which opened face-to-face with a remote option last month, have had to increase staff to accommodate social distancing. That’s been an uphill battle.
“We have teachers who can’t afford to live here,” Richard said. “People have signed contracts to teach but can’t find affordable housing. … the housing market is off the rails here.”
The influx has also created budget challenges, particularly at the high school level, since SAU 9 towns tuition their students to Kennett High School in North Conway. “There were concerns at the last Jackson School Board meeting from members of the public,” Richard said. “ ‘How do we know these people are residents of the town?’ ‘We hear so-and-so’s grandkids are coming here.’”
How the swell in enrollment will play out at the classroom level remains to be seen, Richard said. “But we’ll be making it work,” he said.
“We just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
Not all districts with large concentrations of vacation homes are reporting significant increases. However, with many districts around the state reporting a drop in enrollment this school year, the influx from out-of-staters may be balancing out the loss in some communities.
“We actually have remained very stable,” said Pam Stiles, Superintendent of SAU 72, which serves the town of Alton, home to both lakefront and mountain real estate.
Administrators from the six schools in the nearby Newfound School District have all noticed a slight bump in enrollment.
“They’re all saying they’ve had an uptick,” said Pierre Couture, who was hired as superintendent this summer. “How significant the impact will be depends on how it’s distributed, but it’s not likely to have a big effect.”
Like Richard, Couture is concerned with how the demand for homes might affect people in less affluent communities.
And even in towns that are thrilled to make room for newcomers, the transition can be bumpy.
Back in Waterville Valley, teachers and administrators are trying to find ways to stretch the budget.
Because it doesn’t qualify for Title I funds, Waterville Valley didn’t receive any funding through the CARES Act to deal with pandemic-related expenses. Now, the increased staffing is putting a strain on the operating budget, said Kyla Welch, Superintendent of SAU 8, which includes Waterville Valley.
“The budget is tight, and I know I can’t hit the no-vacancy sign,” she said.
Ultimately, the school may have to seek a deficit appropriation to accommodate the unanticipated enrollment increase. But for now, she said, “We’ll just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”