The school’s student population is projected to decrease by 176 students in the next school year, a drop of 8.7%. This poses new difficulties for the school, its administration and its students.
According to data obtained from the attendance office and Data Clerk Jessamy Russell, the school’s population averaged at 1,994 in 2018 and increased slightly the next two years.
The first decline came this year, when the population average went from 2,086 to 2,016, a decrease of 70 students. However, this was a small change, and the presence of online learning made it less noticeable.
This downward trend is expected to continue next year, with the number of students projected to be around 1,840.
While the exact number of students leaving is unknown, that there will be a marked decrease is widely agreed upon.
There are several reasons for the decrease in students. Among them is the opening of a new STEM charter school in Fulton County: Innovation Academy.
Innovation Academy will be opening next academic year, and with an enrollment target of 900 students, many Cambridge students have decided to switch over.
Innovation’s application window has closed, and 103 Cambridge students were accepted.
Freshman Bella Gee is among those students who are planning to attend Innovation next year, having learned of the school last summer. Gee was considering the school even before ending up at Cambridge and put in her application nearing the end of 2020.
“I was always interested in STEM in general and [Innovation] looks kind of interesting. It was a side idea for the most part; before I went to one of the tours, I didn’t really care about it,” Gee said.
The tour of the school’s facilities was ultimately the tipping point that made her decide she wanted to attend, likening it to a college campus.
Gee also said she felt the teachers at Innovation were enthused and excited about teaching, which she felt Cambridge lacked in.
Gee is on a Microsoft Teams group for incoming Innovation students, and while she said she knows of two other people from Cambridge and three from Milton High School attending, most members come from Riverside or John’s Creek, meaning they will likely have to grapple with the same population issues as Cambridge.
Innovation Academy is not the sole reason students are leaving. Principal Ashley Agans gave numerous reasons: some students, both this year and next year, have left to full-time virtual schools. On the opposite end, some have left for completely in-person private schools or have moved out of the area.
Population trends in general have contributed to the dearth of students. Agans said that, while Cambridge is lucky to be in an area with a generally stable population, the freshman class has been rather small this year and the next.
The decrease in numbers will primarily affect the school financially. Agans said about 87% of the school’s budget, as determined by Fulton County, is based on the number of students. Thus, a decrease of students is a decrease of money, forcing budget cuts.
Agans said she and the school have attempted to minimize the effects this will have on students, trying first and foremost to cut back on administrative expenses and other non-essentials.
For example, under the new projections and budget, Cambridge would have been forced to let go of a counselor. However, funds were redirected and expenses rewritten to ensure this would not happen. However, not all such hits could be avoided, and the most visible decrease will be in the number of teachers.
Agans said about four teachers were surplus, meaning Cambridge couldn’t pay for them to stay, and another five or so left for other reasons and likely won’t be replaced. While the numbers are still all approximations and projections, there is certainly going to be a decrease in the number of teachers to match the trend among students.
Math teacher Tara Daas is one of them who will be leaving Cambridge in the coming year. Why teachers are leaving and where they are going is different for them all, but Daas voluntarily chose to leave and will be teaching at Innovation Academy instead.
Daas said her main reason for wanting to make the change was the desire to try a new model of teaching. Innovation’s nature as a STEM school matches well with her teaching of math.
“I think it’ll be interesting to apply math more,” she said, specifically noting her enthusiasm to tie math to medicine.
Daas emphasized the role COVID-19 played in contributing to the drop in student population.
“I think [the decrease] can be attributed to students wanting a different learning environment,” she said. COVID shook up the situation in a way that opened the door to students wanting to leave, she said.
What the drop in teachers means for students is a possible drop in class availability – which classes are offered and during which periods – and a marginal increase in class size.
Despite these difficulties, Agans said there should not be any great difficulty under these new circumstances. She said remaining teachers and students should not notice much of a change and that Cambridge still has the resources to keep class sizes at a reasonable level and keep desired classes, as determined by course verifications, available.
In a nightmare scenario where the numbers continue to decrease to the point where Cambridge cannot justify continuing as it is, Agans said the county would likely redistrict the area to be able to continue to take advantage of Cambridge’s existing infrastructure.
However, the school is still far, far away from this number, which Agans predicts is around 700-1,000 students. While that is far from occurring, county data still shows that the decrease which started this year will likely continue for the next several years.
“It’s all a numbers game, and we can’t say ‘we’ll have more kids or no, we won’t,’” she said. “Unfortunately, numbers are numbers.”