Enrollment at Forest Park’s public elementary schools has taken an unexpected and substantial hit. From spring to fall the district is down nearly 50 students, a big number in a small district.

The question is why? Why is the biggest exit among primary grade students where 26 students have decamped? What does it tell us that 16 students have left the middle school? Why, on the other hand, is pre-K enrollment holding its own?

District administrators promised the school board last week to ferret out the details and to report back. In reviewing transfer data, the district will soon know who is leaving and what alternative education choices families are making. In this economy we’d be surprised to see notable numbers of families moving out of the community and it would also be counterintuitive to expect families to be spending limited funds on private school tuition. So we are curious, too.

Once administrators know who is leaving the district, they will need to find a sensitive way to ask why families are leaving? Some form of an “exit interview” will be useful in sorting out motivations for families who are making other education choices.

The school district saw a larger tumble in enrollment entering the 2006 school year when 78 kids left the district. Overall, District 91 enrollment is 20 percent smaller than it was just eight years ago.

In response to that decline in 2009 the district reorganized its schools away from a neighborhood orientation and into a grade center approach which clusters kids by age. We have been supportive of that move but wonder if it is a piece of the drop in enrollment.

In the immediate moment, students will benefit from still smaller class sizes. More focus from teachers, more assessments on progress will be positives. But Forest Park always offers extremely small class sizes. A continuing drop in the student body could lead to consolidations of classes and higher numbers per class.

Already Supt. Lou Cavallo is talking about the impact of the enrollment thud on the district’s busing costs and he has raised the issue of the planned expansion at Betsy Ross noting that it is “a hard sell to a community to do an addition on a building with declining enrollment.” He’s right.

So far we know we have a problem. Now we need to understand the causes of the problem and make a plan that is responsive.t