COOS COUNTY — Schools on the South Coast are seeing increased student enrollment, but what does that mean for the economy?
Coos Bay School Superintendent Bryan Trendell isn't so sure that it points to anything good outside of the classroom.
“It's hard to tell why we're seeing an increasing number of kids at the elementary level,” Trendell said. “When you look around, it's hard to think that it's because of increased family waged jobs, not by any means. We do have new businesses coming in, but part of the reason we're seeing younger families move in could be because the cost of living here is lower than in other parts of the state.”
He pointed out that the area has a lot of low income housing and while he would like to think it was jobs drawing people in, “it might not necessarily be the case.”
“When you look at the schools, where we are seeing the growth, that is where we have the highest percentage of students on free and reduced lunches,” he said.
At Madison Elementary, which had 418 students last year, more than 80 percent of the student body is on free and reduced lunch. At Blossom Gulch, which had 581 students last year, close to 75 to 80 percent of its kids were on free and reduced lunch.
“I don't know if that number has increased much over the last few years, but it has over the last 10 to 15 years,” Trendell said. “We do have a population of kids living in poverty and a population of kids who are homeless.”
Though none of the school districts can pin down what has caused growth in their elementary enrollment numbers, they have all reported an increase.
For the Coos Bay School District, it reported 4,424 students in 1994. It lost nearly half its student population by 2012, the height of the economic recession, plummeting to 2,716 students.
In 2017, they reported 3,300 and expect the numbers to continue climbing back to normal.
However, it was the North Bend and Coquille school districts that have seen the largest increases. North Bend Schools reported 2,024 students in 2006. By last year, it reported 2,331 students.
The Coquille School District reported 932 students in 2006, but 1,046 in 2017.
“We really aren't sure why our numbers have taken off the way they have,” said Coquille Superintendent Tim Sweeney. “We are very humbled and appreciative that folks have decided to come to the Coquille School District and we continue to strive to make them happy they have chosen us. But I don't think there is a single answer as to why this is happening.”
Recently, the Coquille School District added the Lincoln School of Early Learning to its district office. The main reason the district pushed to create the childhood development center was to accommodate demanding wait list numbers, providing parents from all across the county a safe place to leave young children during work hours.
“It all started when our pre-K hit capacity four years ago,” Sweeney said in a previous interview. “We created a waiting list and the next year tried new configurations to accommodate the list to get as many kids into the program as we could, but it was not academically successful for the students.”
Though squeezing kids in met the needs of the parents, the district aimed to increase education value as well, which meant the waiting list was reinstated.
“Last year we hired a new teacher and a morning educational assistant so we could have 30 kids in the program,” Sweeney said. “We still had 14 on the waiting list after we did that.”
Sweeney was picking up his morning coffee last spring and the man at the drive through window asked for a favor.
“He had just moved to Coquille and had a 4-year-old who he wanted to get into our early learning program, but he had been told it was full,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney asked Sharon Nelson, Lincoln School of Early Learning's principal, but the answer was no, there was no room.
“I was walking back to my office when she came back and said, 'Wait a minute,'” Sweeney said. “If I could give her an afternoon educational assistant, everyone on the waiting list could be fit into the program.”
To do that cost the district $2,800, which Sweeney approved. Within hours after delivering the news to parents with children on the list, the district was flooded with with more requests to get in.
“The waiting list went from 14 to 19,” Sweeney said. “What we found is we have no more space here at Lincoln and yet a growing need to serve our youngest folks in town.”
So Sweeney, Nelson and the school board approved to build a new childhood learning center onto the district office and to expand the program. The program was extended on April 3, with four extra teachers hired to fill the need.
As previously reported by The World, the center will be open year-round, aside from major holidays. This expansion also points to a continued growth in school registration numbers at Coquille. Sweeney reported the district had 951 students last year, with 1,046 this year, with another 52 in pre-K and an additional 10 children in the new early childhood learning program.
“We've heard from a lot of parents who work at the hospital or the courthouse who live in Coos Bay but have a hard time finding quality child care,” Nelson said in a previous interview. “I think as the program continues to grow and word gets out there, many parents will want their children here, where there's something safe from putting them in a larger facility such as a school setting.”
It isn't just the school districts that have seen this growth in its youngest student population, but so have other daycares and after school programs. For example, the Salvation Army's after school program saw attendance numbers go from 10 to 50 this year.
The program's location is next to the Woodland Apartments, which is Section 8 housing. Initially the children that attended the after school program were from those apartments. After Dennis and Tawyna Stumpf, the program coordinators, introduced music, cheerleading, focused on sports and added artwork, word of mouth drew in crowds of kids aged 5 to 12.
“The bulk of our enrollment is from the apartments, though these kids come from all over the county,” Dennis Stumpf said. “Not only do we do background checks on our volunteers, to ensure these kids are safely looked after, but they are fed, have help with their homework, have fun activities and games, not to mention that it is free.”
In forecasting for the future, the Coos Bay School District expects its senior year to bottom out next year with a small senior class but then climb for the next several years as the younger kids move up through the grades.
“If our elementary enrollment continues to grow or at least level off at the current growth line, we will see overall district enrollment increase after next year,” Trendell said. “It is encouraging for the schools.”