Drastic changes in enrollment factor into high school football participation decline

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Saturday, September 14, 2019 | 3:45 PM


When McKeesport coach Matt Miller was a senior in 1991, the Tigers had around 85 names on the football roster. This year, his team has 47.

What isn’t lost on Miller is that when he walks the halls at the high school, there are far fewer students than there once were.

“There are empty classrooms,” said Miller, who’s a teacher in the district. “I have an empty classroom across from me and right next to me. When I first started teaching and when I went to school, they were always filled.”

Go back 25 years, and McKeesport School District had 5,165 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education enrollment statistics. By 2018-19, the most recent year available, the school district had shrunk to 3,228 students, with just 1,015 in the high school.

“There are a lot less kids to choose from,” Miller said. “There are lots of things that go into (declining football numbers), but the decline in population is a big one for us. Percentage-wise, there might be the same amount of kids coming out.”

McKeesport isn’t alone.

Western Pennsylvania’s population decline has taken its toll on football rosters across the region. Combined, the 10 counties that comprise the WPIAL and Pittsburgh City League decreased in population by more than 121,000 between 1990 and 2010, according to U.S. Census numbers.

Look back 50 years, and the drop is more than 420,000.

Some of the traditionally strong football schools were among the hardest hit.

Aliquippa, Clairton, New Castle and Jeannette are the top four teams all-time in WPIAL football championships. In the past 25 years, Aliquippa’s school district experienced a 40% drop in enrollment, Clairton fell 27%, New Castle dipped 18% and Jeannette dropped 34%.

“I believe we graduated somewhere just under 50 last year — that’s boys and girls,” said Jeannette football coach Roy Hall, a 1982 graduate. “People always say that’s pretty impressive, what you do with the number you have. But having the tradition that we have, a lot of people want to be a part of that.”

Hall said the Jayhawks had about 55 football players his senior season. They have 38 this year, a solid number for a Class A school.

“Sports isn’t everything, but that’s one thing that helps hold us together (as a community),” Hall said.

While many school districts have faced enrollment drops, some did grow in the past 25 years. Among them, Pine-Richland experienced a 195% increase and South Fayette saw a similar jump.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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