REEDSPORT — Teachers and other school employees have witnessed a roller coaster effect in enrollment in recent years.
At Highland Elementary, another 25 kindergartners for the fall of 2017 means adding another classroom according to Principal Beckie Lupton.
Lupton, who just completed her third year as principal, reflected on overall numbers and especially what might account for them.
Others are weighing in on the increased enrollment, including veteran retired educator David Young. One is parents want to have a small school feel. Young also serves on the school board.
Lupton examined an attendance chart.
"I mean, it's been consistent," she said. "The sixth grade has always been our smallest group."
One newer trend however is that Highland is opening its doors more to music, physical education and offerings at Highland Pool to homeschooled students. This last academic year, one child participated in the above classes. That's grown to five homeschooled students.
"The second grade numbers have remained consistent at 59, 62 and 64 for 2017," she said. "The same was true 2015 at 58, with the high at 62."
As of June 2, she said the school had 53 kindergartners, 42 first-graders, 51 third-graders, 49 fourth-graders, 48-fifth-graders and 36 sixth-graders.
"So if we look at the numbers here for kindergartners we have 53 kindergartners but for the last couple of years we've had 60 so there's actually been a drop," she noted.
Secretary Lisa Smart examines each day's attendance figures, keeping Lupton apprised. Smart asked a former Highland secretary how she kept track of enrollment numbers who gave her tips based on the number of kindergarten packets that were turned in.
"Our prediction for kinders according to the number of packets turned in (25) will double to 50 for the 2017-18 class," Smart said.
"It's just a roll of the dice. Sometimes it's the right guess and sometimes it's not," she said.
Each month, school board members, principals and others receive a grade-by-grade look at how the district fares in enrollment.
Here are the numbers for kindergarten through 12th grade as of June 9, 2016:
- kindergarten, 43;
- first grade, 63;
- second grade, 60;
- third grade, 42;
- fourth grade, 47;
- fifth grade, 40;
- sixth grade, 56;
- seventh grade, 61;
- eighth grade, 48;
- ninth grade, 64;
- 10th grade, 47;
- 11th grade, 48;
- 12th grade, 50.
In all, that comes to 669 for the end of the 2015-2016 academic year.
"We've been averaging slightly over 680 total K-12 students in Reedsport this year," said Superintendent Dan Forbess.
Reedsport Community Charter School Principal Vince Swagerty referred to his school's report card, which each school provides to the Oregon Department of Education as a snapshot of how the building is doing. In this case, RCCS has a high student mobility rate. The mobility rate is a bit more than 28 percent and when you look at a community that has a high rate of mobility, "coming in and going out, coming in and going out, it decreases the stability in the community and it decreases in the school."
"We'll have a student that'll be here a month," he said.
Or perhaps, for example a student lives temporarily with an aunt instead of his parents and this can also impact enrollment. This may not even have anything to do with the school at all but may be because of family issues. Then "after a short period of time, they move back to be with Mom and Dad."
"It could be that for another family that they found suitable employment," the principal said or that they found affordable housing.
Swagerty said that bottom line "it's not consistent from one family to the next."
He also pointed to larger economic influences, saying that when International Paper closed its doors, one could point to the impact on enrollment to that particular event. Over time since then he said that's changed and "we are fortunate to have stable to increased enrollment." However he still emphasized that some students move out of the area.
Looking at Aug. 31, 2015, figures, Swagerty said the school totaled 285 and ended the school year at 318. This year by comparison, RCCS went from 319 students on Aug. 29 to a high of 360 Sept. 14, and then fluctuated between 354, 355 and 350 during the October, November and December time frames. Student enrollment had tapered back to 321 by June 9, 2017.
The past, the present and the future
Lupton said some people retire or move to the area.
Smart agreed, using a recent example of a southern family.
"We just had a family moving here from Texas that used to vacation here," she said, adding that the family moved to the area "and have young kids enrolled here now as well as the high school."
David Young, 73, who was born in Coos Bay but who graduated from Reedsport High School in 1962 and who later taught junior high and senior high English and social studies, shared his thoughts on the past, the present and the future.
Aging buildings will eventually need more money for maintenance but about a year ago the Reedsport School Board and Superintendent Dan Forbess established a maintenance reserve fund for all needs, including roofing.
Young, who's now served on the Reedsport School Board five years, was a fifth-grader when workers were building Highland.
Laughing a bit, he says "and I remember crawling all around the structure (including up in the roof). Oh yes I did!"
He was 6 when laborers built the high school at its current location.
Looking back five years ago when he started on the board, Young said "at first there was a decrease in enrollment." He attributed this to a lack of jobs.
"Then about my second year on the board the (number of) kindergartners started to increase," Young said. "We weren't really prepared for it."
Families from Coos Bay and other communities were taking their children to Reedsport instead.
In these past three years, he's observed more kindergartners and attributes that to "cheaper living conditions in the Reedsport area."
"Rent was cheaper. To buy was cheaper. It's still cheaper to buy a house in Reedsport than say in Eugene and other areas."
This seems to hold true since housing prices are generally higher in Coos Bay and North Bend, thus meaning that some families look north to Reedsport.
Young touched on other reasons for the increased enrollment he's seen these last three years.
He said the board's decision to hire Forbess was excellent.
"I think he's a very outstanding superintendent," the board member said. "He's the first man I've ever seen getting a standing ovation at our first staff meeting."
Young thinks with Forbess's quality of work, that's helped attract more families.
Still others move to the South Coast for the outdoors.
"Why do people come to a small area and are drawn to it?" Young said.
Families who have students attending larger schools may want their children in a smaller environment.
Young thinks children like this individual attention.
"They're not just a person," he said. "In a small school you feel you have an identity."
Principal Swagerty agreed. He's heard from a "number of families" who appreciate a smaller school.
"I would say that's very consistent. Yeah," he said.
A key reason he's heard that families move to the Reedsport-Winchester Bay area is because they already have relatives in the area. The second is affordable housing. For Swagerty and his wife, they currently rent. Home prices when they first moved to Reedsport were less than North Bend or Florence.
At this point Swagerty feels comfortable that he won't have to hire another new teacher.
"If we were to get to a position where we get above 350 to 370 (students), I would anticipate we would need additional teaching staff," Principal Swagerty said. Plus RCCS staff would need to look at exactly where that teacher or teachers would be most needed for academic support.
When Young graduated from Reedsport High School in the early 1960s, the International Paper Mill employed hundreds of workers. The mill operations shut down in 1998, leading to community frustrations. This year more hope among city leaders and some in the community that companies will move to the Gardiner property, now called the Reedsport Commerce Park.
"That's how I feel about it. It's all wishful thinking," he said.
However if the companies do move to the park and in turn with new younger families, that will be excellent news for Reedsport schools, he said.
Swagerty's more optimistic.
"I really look forward to the potential that the site will produce family employment," Swagerty said. "I think that's my biggest hope — that people will be able to build or buy a home."
In turn Swagerty hopes other merchants who move to Old Town will follow the model shown by Defeat River Brewery, investing cash into a building while still sprucing up downtown and "to really spur growth."
Younger families with children would then mean more money for the school district.