Enrollment in the Vineyard public schools has dropped for the sixth year in a row, according to school census figures released this week.

As of Oct. 1, the schools counted 2,169 students - down 50 from last year, and down 266 from the year 2000, when overall enrollment hit 2,435 - an all-time high. Enrollment in the Island elementary schools is down 30 students from last year and the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School is down by 20 - but still hovering above 800 students.

Numbers have seen a dramatic downward trend in the elementary schools for ten years, since elementary enrollment reached its peak at 1,730 students in 1996. This year, elementary enrollment is the lowest it has been since 1989.

This also marks the first time enrollment has dropped at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School in four years, and it is the most significant change in the high school's enrollment numbers since steady increases throughout the 1990s.

This year's census may indicate that the elementary school enrollment trend is finally catching up with the regional high school. Last year the regional high school saw the highest enrollment in its history, with 822 students.

"It's hard to say whether last year was the peak or not," Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss said. "It's been growing in a surprising way for us in the past few years."

Every year, a number of Island teens enter the regional high school's ninth grade from the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School and Falmouth Academy. In addition, there are typically a few off-Island students that move to the Island to attend the regional high school. Combined with the drops in elementary enrollment, high school enrollment has stayed relatively flat in the last several years.

"If the trend were just our own elementary or junior high students, that would be the case, but there are a couple of confounding variables," Mr. Weiss said. "The number of eighth graders graduating in June is always less than the number of ninth graders starting in September."

Total kindergarten and first grade enrollments are the lowest they have been in the past several years, but the downward trend is not as clear as it is for the elementary schools. Kindergarten and first grade enrollments have also risen at least once in the last five years.

There are significantly more boys than girls in both the regional high school and elementary schools overall - as has been the case for many years. There are 5.6 per cent more boys than girls enrolled Island-wide this year. The only school to have more girls than boys this year is the West Tisbury School - with 25 more girls.

The superintendent's office works with the New England School Development Council (NESDEC) to forecast future enrollment at the school by looking at live birth trends, housing stock and current school enrollment. The projections are crucial for budget planning, which begins at this time of year - but they are not always reliable.

In March of 2002, the Gazette reported a council prediction that enrollment would decline 4.2 per cent in the next five years. The drop occurred in less than two years. In the last five years, overall enrollment has dropped over 10 per cent.

"Projecting enrollments is kind of like using a divining rod," Mr. Weiss said. "You never really know what's going to happen. That's why we thought Oak Bluffs was going to decline."

Instead, Oak Bluffs enrollment went up by 22 students this year, which surprised administrators. On the other hand, West Tisbury enrollment continued to drop like a stone, following a consistent trend over the past five years. West Tisbury School enrollment was 273 as of Oct. 1, down 26 students from last year and down 119 students from 2001.

In past years, school administrators have pointed to the charter school as one reason for lower enrollments in West Tisbury. But while the Charter School does have a significant number of West Tisbury students - 31 this year - the number has not changed much in the past several years.

"I also think West Tisbury is changing in terms of its makeup," Mr. Weiss said. "I think what's happening is people are looking for cost-effective housing. Years ago, that could have been attributed to West Tisbury, but that is not the case now."

He predicted that affordable housing developments planned for the next year or two - such as the Pennywise Path project in Edgartown - will have a noticeable effect on the distribution of elementary school enrollment.

"I think housing drives a lot of this," Mr. Weiss said. "Once those come to fruition, that could have a significant impact on those two communities, because housing [cost] is a key component of where people are going to live on this Island."

Enrollment at the Edgartown School also dropped significantly this year, down to 323 students - 27 fewer than last year. This is the lowest enrollment at the school for several years. Edgartown's enrollment has been steady in recent years, so time will tell whether this year's decline is a fluke or a trend.

The Tisbury and Chilmark Schools continue to see relatively flat enrollment numbers, with Tisbury at 308 students and Chilmark at 50. Enrollment has also remained steady at the charter school, where demand exceeds the space available, and the school keeps a waiting list. The charter school has maintained an enrollment of about 160 students. There are 100 students on the wait list and 75 per cent live up-Island, according to Claudia Ewing, the school's assistant director.

As the New England School development Council begins to analyze the census data for the Vineyard public schools, principals are beginning to plan their budgets for the next school year. Although enrollment has been declining for six years, budgets continue to go up.

"If you lose one student, it doesn't mean your budget is going to go down one per-pupil cost," Mr. Weiss said. He said many costs remain fixed - including heat and lights.

When enrollment drops enough, schools can reduce the number of classes and cut staff. This year, the West Tisbury School has one first grade class, one second grade class and one combination class, with a total of three teachers for those grades. Last year, there were two classrooms each for the first and second grades, with four teachers total.

"They reached that critical mass and we were able to reduce a teacher," Dr. Weiss said, noting that teachers of the arts and special classes, like physical education, are sometimes reduced in these circumstances as well. Instead of having two physical education teachers, the school may have one full-time and one part-time teacher, he said.