MONASTERY: Accustomed to steep year-over-year drops in student numbers, officials at the Strait regional school board (SRSB) are “very surprised” by enrolment updates showing more stable figures for the new academic year, including increases for the student bodies at nine SRSB schools.

As of September 30, a total of 6,243 students were enrolled in the SRSB’s 21 schools, only 37 fewer than its 2015-16 student population and far less than the decline of 227 students projected this past March. The board had lost 255 students from 2014-15 to 2015-16, but according to SRSB superintendent of schools Ford Rice, the arrival of 20 students from Syrian refugee families combined with the return of several Strait area families from Alberta in the wake of last May’s city-wide fire in Fort McMurray, helping to boost the region’s student numbers.

“Last year, in the spring of the year, we had a number of families move in from Fort McMurray with the events happening there,” Rice told reporters following last week’s board meeting at East Antigonish Education Centre and Academy in Monastery.

“Some of those have decided to stay – anecdotally, we’re hearing that in some of our discussions with principals.”

Rice also noted that several other students have moved to the Strait area from other parts of Nova Scotia, helping to stem a trend that saw the board routinely losing hundreds of students on an annual basis over its 20-year history.

“In 2011-12, we were down by 299 students, and as we moved back further, some of the numbers were in the 400-500 drop in enrolment,” Rice recalled.

“Whether that will continue or not remains to be seen over the course of [the following years], but we’re just pleased with the numbers that we have right now… We’re very surprised by that, but we welcome that as well.”

Schools reporting increased enrolment included Port Hawkesbury’s SAERC and Tamarac Education Centre, Whycocomagh Education Centre, Chedabucto Education Centre/Guysborough Academy, Fanning Education Centre/Canso Academy, Dr. J.H. Gillis Regional High School, Antigonish Education Centre, H.M. MacDonald Elementary School, and St. Andrew Junior School, which recorded the largest single enrolment jump with 25 extra students, bringing the Antigonish school’s population to 566.

On the other end of the spectrum, Mulgrave Memorial Education Centre recorded the single biggest decline in student population, with its current 29 students amounting to less than half of last year’s figure of 62. However, MMEC’s Grade 7 and 8 students are now attending TEC as part of a two-year transition period that will see the Mulgrave school close at the end of the 2017-18 academic year.

In the meantime, Rice is hopeful that recent trends will combine with projections provided to the SRSB for the coming decade to spell the end of the steep population decline that has marked the board’s first 20 years of existence.

“When you compare 45 per cent [decline] from 1996 to the past year to [a projection of] 20 per cent for the next 10 years, it’s not as drastic a decline as we would have seen beforehand,” the superintendent concluded.