Is the Outer Cape a good place for children to grow up? I’ve always thought so. The natural beauty that has inspired so many artists and writers — the sea, the dunes, the marshes and moors, the hollows and ponds, the ever-changing light — must also exert a powerful influence on the children here. The ones we know seem unusually in touch with nature and endowed with a rare independence and adventurousness. Many of them learn at an early age to fish, to surf, to tinker with machines, to make art and poetry and music.
The local schools surely have something to do with that. Before I dove back into newspaper work, I spent a couple of years substitute teaching and got to see all of the elementary schools here from the inside. Each school is different, of course, and each has its particular strengths and weaknesses, but I became convinced that our public schools are one of the Outer Cape’s best kept secrets. They benefit from strong community support and involvement, and they are small enough to operate more like families than bureaucracies — places where every child is well known, and the adults feel the satisfaction of seeing children blossom with a mixture of freedom and attention.
The local schools are small, and that’s part of what makes them good. But their enrollment numbers, almost without exception, are getting smaller — and that’s alarming. While the population of the four Outer Cape towns increased by 22 percent between 2010 and 2020, the number of children who go to school here has steadily dwindled, and this year it nose-dived.
Provincetown is the sole exception. Its public school enrollment went up by one child this year, for a total of 142. Truro Central has 12 fewer students, Wellfleet Elementary dropped by 14, and Eastham Elementary by 6. Nauset Middle School enrollment decreased by 38, and Nauset High is down to 780 students, a loss of 53 from last year and 157 fewer than it had five years ago.
Decreasing school numbers are not new here, but the obscene jump in the cost of housing has clearly had disastrous effects. Young families are leaving, and they are not being replaced. The median age of Outer Cape residents hovers around 60. It’s not at all clear how our increasingly aged population will be able to manage here with fewer and fewer young people to provide the services they require.
The irony in this story is that we are surrounded by wealth — in both dollars and social capital. We have the capacity, in our magnificent nature and our fine schools, to rear a new generation of strong and capable Cape Codders. Our high school graduates tell us how deeply attached they are to this place, and that they want to work to help save it.
Any town where it is almost impossible to raise a family is, in fact, in danger. These towns may have enormous assets, but they still need saving.