Changes ahead for Lab School at BCHS as program suspends new enrollment

The Bethlehem Central School District has announced that the longstanding Lab School program at the high school will no longer enroll new students and will be phased out, in its current format, over two years beginning in the 2024-25 school year. The move is the result of declining enrollment and student demand. The announcement was made by Superintendent of Schools Jody Monroe at a meeting of Lab School families, students and staff on Tuesday, Jan. 23.

The Lab School program was founded in 1992 to provide a small-school learning environment within the larger high school, in a setting featuring a team teaching model and project-based learning. The four-year program was originally designed to accommodate between 92-120 students. Current enrollment in Lab School is 62 students in grades 9-12.

Students in grades 10 and 11 who are currently enrolled in Lab School will be able to continue the program through to graduation, in 2025 and 2026, respectively. Current grade 9 Lab School students will be enrolled in regular high school classes, beginning with the 2024-25 school year. In 2024-25, current ninth-grade students will be scheduled to remain with their cohort for at least one core course (science), and possibly more.

Lab School enrollment will not be an option for incoming ninth-grade students in 2024-25.

“This is not a decision that has been made lightly,” said Superintendent Monroe. “Since 2014, the district has been working to maintain Lab School as an option for BC students. Unfortunately, given changing student demands combined with enrollment declines both in Lab School and at the high school level, it has been a struggle to fill classes and to keep them filled for four years.”

Superintendent Monroe said a two-year review of Lab School was completed in 2016, at which time the program underwent a series of changes designed to make it more efficient and more attractive to students entering high school. Since 2016, the number of Lab School graduates has fluctuated from a high of 24 students in 2018 to a low of 8 in 2023.

In her presentation to Lab School stakeholders on Tuesday, Superintendent Monroe provided data showing that in 2023-24, the average class section in Lab School core courses (English Language Arts, mathematics, science and social studies) had only 14 students, compared to an average class size of 20-22 students in the greater high school. Thirteen of 16 sections (more than 80%) of Lab School core courses have class sizes of less than 17 students. In general practice, the high school does not run class sections with fewer than 17 students.

Overall, high school enrollment in Bethlehem has declined 19.2 percent since 2010, when 1,694 students were enrolled in grades 9-12. It is projected to continue to decline by 8.1 percent through 2028-29. Enrollment projections are compiled for the district by the Capital District Regional Planning Commission.

Monroe said in addition to fewer students, demand for the Lab School experience has weakened as more opportunities have been made available to students in the larger high school.

“Bethlehem students have more ways to customize their high school experience than ever before and students want to explore those opportunities,” said Monroe. “We find that many of our 9-12 students want to take advantage of electives that cannot be accommodated by the Lab School schedule and that has also adversely affected the Lab School enrollment.”

Superintendent Monroe said the decision to end the formal Lab School program in its current form does not mean the end of Lab School-type opportunities for students. A committee of teachers at the school, including Lab School teachers, is being created to look at alternative options for providing more self-designed or project-based courses of study and community experiences similar to Lab School. The committee will also be asked to look at whether a different cohort model incorporating the original tenets of Lab School, rather than a full four-year program, should be an option for students beyond the class of 2026.

“Our incredible Lab School teachers have worked hard to market and support this program. They have brought forth ideas to reimagine and reinvent Lab School to make it more attractive to more students,” said Monroe. “It’s not possible to build a plane while flying it and that is what they have been trying to do, especially this year. Now they will have help in reimagining the program to make these kinds of opportunities for students more flexible and more sustainable.

“This is news that comes with a lot of emotion attached to it, not only for our students but for faculty, families and alumni,” said Superintendent Monroe. “Lab School represents one of our essential core values which is community. We will do everything we can to support the Lab School community throughout this period of transition.”