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They're back (and they've brought friends)

When registration was complete and Ashland High principal Michelle Zundel was finally able to look at the numbers, she knew it was going to be a long weekend.

Zundel expected a small bump, which had already been accounted for. What she got instead was more of a hill. Signed up and ready to hit the books were 115 students who were not in Ashland schools in 2013-14, raising the school’s total student body past quadruple digits to 1,013.

So Zundel got to work, covered her dining room wall with butcher paper populated with wait-list names (the photo’s on Facebook) and — with the help of five others, counselors and administrators — began the arduous process of piecing together the four dimensional puzzle that is Ashland High’s class schedule.

It wasn’t easy. Zundel and company worked three full days over Labor Day weekend, 24 hours each, moving names around, pulling from one class to add to another, all in an effort to satisfy the flood of requests by students while also keeping class sizes down. To meet the demand, Zundel had to add two more classes — a science class and Spanish 2. But by the time the freshmen arrived for the first day of school Tuesday morning (everybody else starts Wednesday) each of those 1,000-plus students had a finalized class schedule.

The mad dash behind her, Zundel on Wednesday, sitting in a chair in her office, leaned back and let out a laugh laced with relief, then pointed out that three more students had enrolled that morning.

“We are thrilled to have new families, I want to make that perfectly clear,” she said. “I love my job. It is true that I was laboring on Labor Day, but it’s that fatigue from worthwhile work.”

The average class size is higher than Zundel would like in some of the school’s offerings, but overall she’s proud of the final product. According to figures compiled by the school, the lowest student-to-teacher ratio can be found in world languages classes, which average 22.5 students. Wellness classes, on the other hand, average 32.5 students per class, which represents the largest average class size.

Most of Ashland High’s classes average between 25 and 30 students: advanced placement classes, 28.8 students on average; social studies, 28.4; family health, 24.5; math 26.9; science, 26.4.

Fifteen years ago, when Zundel was the assistant principal, 1,200 students attended Ashland High, but enrollment began to steadily decline in the 2000s. According to the Oregon Department of Education, AHS had 951 students for the 2012-13 school year. Only time will tell if this year’s influx, which included 57 freshmen who were not in Ashland schools last year, is a sign of things to come or a coincidence, but Zundel says the numbers as they are fit the school almost perfectly.

“I think district-wide we’ve kind of plateaued now, we’re not declining or increasing,” she said. “So I think our enrollment is stabilizing and I think Ashland High School is likely to hover around 1,000 students; that would be my hope. So I’m excited by the possibility that this represents, that maybe we’ll be able to be at that thousand level.”

Of those 115 students who are new to Ashland, 78 are from Oregon and 37 from other states or countries (one new family moved from Singapore). Other trends worth noting: Ashland High added 17 open enrollment or inter-district transfers, seven foreign exchange students, four from online/virtual schools and six recovered dropouts. Though most of those students who are new to Ashland are freshmen, there were also 22 new sophomores, 20 juniors and 16 seniors.

Zundel says Ashland High’s reputation as an academic powerhouse may be responsible for at least some of the new additions. A U.S. News & World Report analysis released in May ranked AHS in the top 10 percent of the nation’s secondary schools, earning the school its fifth silver medal.

“When I talk to new families, in some cases they’ve done a nationwide search and determined that Ashland High is where they want to be,” Zundel said. “One family said, ‘It’s the Ashland advantage we want for our child moving into college.’

“We have an exceptional school with really strong teachers and Ashland has continued to offer a vast range of elective classes that have been cut elsewhere because of funding.”

And sometimes, upholding that reputation means working through the weekend in order to fit kids into classrooms.

“During three days of registration, kids would come in and say, ‘Oh, I changed my mind from last spring when I asked for whatever, and I really want to study computer science now,’” Zundel said. “So then we would change their schedule around. We figure that students will attend classes in which they’re motivated to be.

“They have two powerful motivations — one is to choose and another is to be chosen.”

Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

Ashland High School theater class students loosen up before class on Wednesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Katie Cook, 17, participates in a calculus math song and dance during class at Ashland High School Wednesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch