A numbers lesson
Students are back in classrooms after participating in distance learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but in many cases, the number of students looks different than it did before.
Though some districts were fortunate and are reporting enrollment to look like business as usual, many have felt a hit especially to their kindergarten programs as parents opt to either wait to enroll, enroll children in online academies or go private with their education.
While many school districts saw a dip in enrollment last year, that wasn't the case in Estacada.
It was one of the few school districts in the region to maintain its overall enrollment numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic, which communications director Maggie Kelly attributes to responsiveness to parent concerns and thorough COVID-19 safety protocols.
"We were one of the first districts to open last year, so we've had time to work out the kinks in a low-pressure setting. This year, we were ready to roll," she said.
As of October, the Estacada School District has 1,733 students enrolled for the 2020-21 school year. Last November, there were 1,739 students enrolled. Kelly noted that the district waited to drop any students who were not attending until this time because of the Clackamas County wildfires, which caused many students and families to evacuate at the start of the school year. In 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district had 1,740 students enrolled.
One area where Estacada has seen a dip is the number of kindergarten students. There are 122 students enrolled this year, compared to 155 in 2019.
Kelly attributed the drop to concern about having students start school with the uncertainties caused by COVID-19.
Along with pandemic related factors, Estacada's enrollment numbers have also been influenced by new families moving to town. Estimates from Portland State University's Population Research Center found that the city had 4,035 residents in 2020, up from 2,695 in 2010.
Kelly noted that much of the growth for the district has been centered at the first through third grade levels.
"As families move, there are a lot of younger students," she said.
Because much of this growth has been within the River Mill Elementary School boundaries, new families are given the option of alternatively attending Clackamas River Elementary. "That's helped balance the growth," she added.
Kelly said that Estacada's increasing enrollment numbers have not led the average elementary class size of 25 students to expand.
"When we get new students, we get new funding to hire new staff members," she said.
Similar to Estacada, Oregon Trail School District administrators have reported that enrollment in the Sandy area schools is on a positive, healthy trend. Any disruption to enrollment numbers at individual schools caused little impact to overall enrollment district wide.
"We're pleased with where our enrollment is, considering the overall impact the last 18 months have had on every sector, including public schools," said OTSD Superintendent Aaron Bayer. "For us, as a district, we haven't labored a lot during the pandemic."
In the last academic year pre-COVID, 2018-19, Oregon Trail began the year with 4,496 students and ended with 4,375 students. In September 2019, the district's enrollment actually went up to 4,582, ending in spring of 2020 with 4,476 students. Last school year, enrollment numbers did go down, but not drastically, starting at 4,398 in fall and ending at 4,266 in spring.
Bayer explained that this is "how healthy school districts with healthy, robust populations trend."
While Portland State University had projected years ago that by now Oregon Trail would see enrollment of around 4,500-4,600 students, Bayer said the district is still optimistic since enrollment numbers this fall were up from spring.
In September, 4,405 students enrolled in the district, with only 14 students across the district dropping by Sept. 30. Typically, even more tend to be dropped by that point in the year from missing 10 days of school and being deemed inactive.
Of all Oregon Trail schools, Sandy Grade is down the most students at face value, with 32 fewer students this fall than last spring.
Here are the trends by school:
Bayer noted that he is less inclined to be most concerned about enrollment numbers when it comes to students. He said: "You can't be everything to everyone."
"We take the approach that the kids who want to be here, want to be here," Bayer said. "We do everything in our power, that we can, to ensure that we continue to engage kids, providing them with a rigorous, reliable and robust education. It's our hope that families and students enjoy that experience and recognize the efforts our teachers and our administrators are putting forward to ensure (students) arrive at the future they deserve."
Bayer attributes the continued health of the district's enrollment to how the district has changed over time to meet the needs of students.
"We want to be as much as possible to everyone who wants to be part of the Oregon Trail family, and we want to do that to the very best of our ability," Bayer said. "As a district, our aim has always been to find a pathway to the program that will help students be able to compete in this global economy. It's incumbent on us to recognize if and when a program isn't meeting that need for kids, and we need to be nimble and agile enough to reinvent that program or to create programs that will help us achieve that goal."
Bayer used the Sandy High Career and Technical Education programs as an example of offerings that grow and morph over time to address student needs and industry changes. "We've really tried to create as many pathways as we're capable of doing, but not such that we're watering things down," he said. "But so the kids have enough variety of programmatic offerings to allow them to explore on the creative side and scientific side. We want to make sure that we're never not agile enough to make sure that our programs remain current and are meeting the needs of an ever-changing landscape and economic forecast."
Gresham-Barlow, Reynolds and Centennial school districts all saw the effects of the pandemic reflected in its 2021-22 enrollment numbers.
Reynolds' elementary school enrollment numbers have been in a small decline since the 2017-18 school year but took an even larger dip when the pandemic hit. The 2019-20 elementary enrollment numbers were at 4,614, decreasing by a little over 100 students from the previous year. In 2020 the district's elementary enrollment numbers were down to 4,239 students.
Gresham-Barlow school district has also seen a decline in elementary enrollment. In the 2017-18 school year Gresham-Barlow had about 4,900 students enrolled in its elementary schools. Enrollment in the district's elementary schools in 2021-22 year is down by about 800 students. The steepest decline came from first-grade classes, which were down by about 22% from the 2017-18 school year.
Gresham-Barlow middle school enrollment numbers came out unscathed compared to the district's elementary numbers. This school year's middle school enrollment numbers are down by about 300 students compared to the 2019-20 school year.
Despite the pandemic the district's high schools increased its enrollment in the 2021-22 school year and surpassed district expectations. The 2019-20 school year had high school enrollment at 3,336, which increased to 3,535 for the 2021-22 school year.
The small Centennial School District had about 6,000 students registered in 2017 and went down to about 5,585 students for the 2021-22 school year. At the elementary level, the enrollment number is 2,811 for the school year, which is down compared to 2019-20 year's enrollment of 3,233.
During his presentation of the enrollment numbers during a September school board meeting, Paul Southerton, Centennial's director of business and operations department, said that the middle school and high school enrollment numbers returned to pre-pandemic levels.
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