Burnham school enrollment bounces back
BRIDGEWATER — Last year, with fewer than 40 students projected to attend Burnham School this fall, parents and town officials rolled out a plan to reverse an enrollment decline they feared would eventually lead to its closure.
Last week, with 47 students enrolled on the first day — including 11 tuition-paying students from outside the district — officials said the plan is working.
The kindergarten class has 16 students, a far cry from the five originally projected.
Burnam, already the smallest of Region 12’s three elementary schools, has suffered more than the others from the district’s declining student population.
Parents and Bridgewater officials were determined to keep the school viable. They lobbied the district to lower tuition for out-of-district students to $5,000 a year. The town then offered another $1,500 scholarship for those who attend Burnham, and the PTO pledged to reimburse parents another $1,000.
Former PTO President Carolan Dwyer said these efforts were so successful in attracting out-of-district students — all from New Milford — there is talk of closing classes to new registrations, which the school never before had to consider.
“We have more kids than we did last year — that’s something unheard of in this area right now — and people are paying to fill our seats,” Dwyer said. “I really feel we turned a huge corner and I can safely say we all saved Burnham.”
In contrast, the other two elementary schools in Region 12, Washington Primary and Booth Free in Roxbury, posted lower enrollment numbers this year than projected.
Bridgewater First Selectman Curtis Read said Burnham’s enrollment spike is a “startling success.”
“Success has been so rapid, and frankly more than we anticipated,” he said. “I knew we’d get some kids, but this is like, Wham! Instant success.”
Read not only budgeted for scholarships, but joined the PTO in paying for mailers, brochures and a social media marketing campaign aimed at parents outside the district. Dwyer said the PTO has money set aside for the scholarships and plans to continue raising funds to pay for future students.
Burnham had been under threat of closure for years.
In 2014, the district proposed consolidating the region’s three primary schools in Washington, but voters in Roxbury and Bridgewater defeated the plan at the polls.
In 2015, as Burnham enrollment continued to decline, the district combined the kindergarten and first-grade classes. In 2016, second-graders joined this combined class, and in 2017, third, fourth and fifth grades were combined into another class, leaving the school with two.
Town officials worried the consolidation would result in a “cycle of attrition,” where low enrollment was used to justify staff cuts, which would in turn discourage future enrollment.
But with this year’s increased enrollment, that cycle has broken, officials said.
The PTO has managed to turn the consolidation into a marketing asset, arguing it gives teachers more flexibility and allows creation of “tech hubs” and quiet study nooks around the building.
The teacher-to-student ratio is still desirable, Dwyer said, and students get to move between classrooms according to their interests and abilities.
“When you walk into those classrooms, you can feel the positive energy,” Dwyer said.
One new Burnham parent, Greg Bura, wrote the PTO last week to say how happy he was to drop off his child.
“I got a little teary-eyed this morning dropping Chayton off,” Bura wrote. “The warmth of everyone, the joy and excitement of the students, and the adorable perfect school setting trigged an emotional response.
“We are honored and grateful to be a part of the ‘Burnham family.’”
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