Signaling a possible influx of families seeking more affordable housing and transportation in the region's urban core, the Medford School District chalked up the biggest enrollment gain in the state, adding 460 students for a total that's 3.6 percent above last year.
Perhaps underlining the trend, outlying districts in Jackson County generally lost students. Eagle Point dropped 87 students, Phoenix-Talent lost 42, Central Point dipped by 28 and Rogue River lost 20.
Medford School District enrollment change, by grade:
Remaining static were Ashland, Prospect and Pinehurst. Butte Falls gained 19 students.
"The influx of families to Medford is because of the diversified housing (costs) here," said Medford 549(c) Superintendent Phil Long, "and in the economic swirl, people losing or having to downsize homes. We're seeing more grandparents living with grown children and the grandchildren."
Medford's enrollment also grew, Long said, because of increased numbers at Logos Public Charter School, which provides education options for homeschooled students. In addition, he noted, the Medford district has been able to keep music and other programs that other districts have dropped as budgets have been cut.
"It's a shift to the more urban life," he said, mentioning the example of rural Josephine County schools losing more than 1,000 students.
The addition of the 460 students "is a good problem to have, for us," said Long, referring to unexpectedly large class sizes, some over 40 at the start of school last fall. That resulted in a scramble for more furniture, added class sections — and brought in $6,000 in new funding for each student added, or about $2.75 million.
The biggest gains in Medford were younger families in kindergarten and first grade. Latino students went from 21 to 22 percent of the total student population, while whites declined slightly, from 71.3 to 71 percent. The percentage of black and multiracial non-Hispanic students declined a fraction.
The 87-student decline in Eagle Point is connected to the collapse of the housing market, said Superintendent Cynda Rickert, adding that the 2 percent drop matched the loss of the year before. The 87 students represent about $522,000 in state funding.
"Until 2008, the housing market grew, but we were hit hard by the decline," Rickert said. "A lot of families lost homes.
"But (with the 2 percent decline), we're still in the ballpark," she said. "We're fortunate to be staying steady in hard times. Our class sizes have remained reasonable and we're the only school district in Southern Oregon not to have furlough days. We're watching the Legislature to see what they will do. Anything is possible. I think next year won't be as hard."
Phoenix-Talent's 42-student decline can be attributed not so much to a lack of affordable housing as to the lack of available housing, said Superintendent Ben Bergreen.
"There's not a lot of building going on in the district. There aren't new places to live," said Bergreen. "Our registrars say kids come and go on a daily basis, going to California, Nevada or back east. There's a lot of movement with families and most of it has to do with finding work.
"The loss of students definitely has an impact for us, but the Legislature is just starting up, so we keep our eye on what they'll be doing about that."
At Hoover Elementary in the Medford district, Principal Lynn Cataldo said enrollment in her kindergarten has jumped the past three years, resulting in added sections. The half-day kindergarten went from three to four classes last fall and was handled by increasing one teacher from half to full time.
"It's much bigger than we anticipated," she said. "People are moving into the area. People are hearing good things about the school and some say they actually bought housing so they could be here."
At Griffin Creek Elementary, also in the Medford district, enrollment has surpassed 600, compared with fewer than 500 students a decade ago, said Principal Louis Dix.
"I can see why families want to be here," she said. "We try hard to create a community and it's a desirable place to work and live."
Medford's growth rate outpaced the other 12 major districts in the state, according to a news release from the Department of Education. The next highest growth rates were Springfield at 2.04 percent and Bend-LaPine at 1.84 percent. The rest were fractions of 1 percent. Statewide, the growth rate was one-half of 1 percent.
Overall, there were 563,714 students enrolled in Oregon's public schools last fall. The increase of 2,768 students from 2011-12 reverses a four-year streak of falling enrollment.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.