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Kids Unlimited Academy on the move

As Jackson County schools plan to begin their year learning from a distance, now might not seem like the most natural time to open a new campus.

But Kids Unlimited Academy and the Eagle Point School Board have agreed that this is their moment.

“We were presented with a very unique opportunity,” said Tom Cole, founder and executive director of Kids Unlimited, the nonprofit that oversees both the existing Medford charter school and after-school and summer programs.

The Eagle Point School Board approved KUA’s charter July 22, and the small school is already open for registration. To start, it will welcome just two classes of 26 kindergarten students, with a plan to add an additional grade every year that follows, topping out at fifth grade. The school also hopes to offer a preschool option this year.

School leaders say the intent behind the expansion of KUA into White City, made possible by investment from a local foundation, is to better support students from low-income households, Spanish-speaking households and migrant students. With lagging achievement rates among those students at the local elementary school, the school district hopes that Kids Unlimited’s record of connecting with and lifting up underserved families will boost achievement.

“I’m excited about the partnership and to see how this is going to improve services for these kids,” said Andy Kovach, superintendent of the Eagle Point School District.

The new campus, whenever it opens, will be at the former site of Cascade Bingo, which closed in 2019. Another nonprofit, Discovery Ed, which aimed to provide after-school activities for White City students, renovated and moved into the space in 2019 but remained there less than a year.

Kids Unlimited has offered after-school activities in White City for over a decade, Cole said, including at Table Rock Elementary School, where the vast majority of students living in White City attend. There and in other schools, the nonprofit has facilitated extra homework assistance, and in several communities in the Rogue Valley, Kids Unlimited has offered recreation and sports activities for even longer.

KUA’s new charter school will divert 312 students from Table Rock Elementary when it reaches full capacity in 2024-25.

As the student body grows, the target population for recruitment will be “high-need” youth, according to the charter approved by the school district.

That includes “children and students who are at risk of educational failure due to (but not limited to) living in poverty, living in dysfunctional neighborhoods with high crime levels, exposure and/or family involvement in youth gangs, family member in jail/prison,” the charter said.

English Language Learners, migrant students, homeless students, students living in foster care, and kids who have exposure to substance abuse or trafficking are other targeted groups for recruitment.

It’s often the achievement rates at Table Rock Elementary that officials behind the new charter school cite as one sign they need more help.

Table Rock’s 2018-19 state testing scores showed that just 18.5% of migrant students across all grades scored proficient in English language arts. By comparison, 25.9% of migrant students at Kids Unlimited Academy in Medford were proficient.

Valerie Shehorn, principal of Table Rock Elementary, said that during her three years at the school, her staff has focused on improving supports for English language learners in their English language classes and their regular classes.

It was “disappointing,” she said, to miss out on the opportunity to check on the progress of those efforts through state testing this year.

Still, work to improve instruction for those students will continue under the distance learning model, she said.

“We’re not in the building, but we still plan to work with consultants to continue to keep that training going even at the start of the school year,” Shehorn said.

Kids Unlimited in Medford works with a student population similar to that of Table Rock Elementary: over 95% of students qualify for free and reduced meals, and over 30% are identified by the state as “Ever English Learners.”

Higher poverty and higher crime both result in additional environmental challenges for White City students. According to the most recent census estimates, about 20.7% of residents live below the poverty line, compared to 16.3% in the Medford metro area.

Shehorn and Kovach acknowledged that the new charter school will divert money from Table Rock Elementary as students who would have attended there head to Kids Unlimited Academy instead.

“That school is high-capacity right now, and this might provide some relief for us there,” Kovach said. “(But) as this relationship goes on and more and more classes are added, that will have a financial impact.”

While the school district will keep the portion of state funds allocated for children receiving special education and will provide those services itself to the charter school, funds for English learners, for example, will be passed through to the school for it to provide them with services, Kovach said.

Shehorn said that while she doesn’t want to lose families from Table Rock Elementary, some students will benefit from the change.

“If we’re not meeting their needs and there’s another option that is, then that’s what I want for our kids and families,” she said.

If signups for Kids Unlimited in White City exceed available slots, the school will turn to a lottery system to select students, Cole said.

It’s a likely outcome in a community where the nonprofit already has deep connections. Cole said the waiting list for the Medford charter school is about 400 students deep.

For now, school staff will focus on readying for another period of time teaching from a distance. Cole said determining whether any in-person preschool will be an option is dependent on rules set by the Oregon Early Learning Division, and more information will be released as those become clearer.

Registration information for the new kindergarten classes can be found at www.kuoregon.org/.

Kids Unlimited Academy is expanding into the Old Cascade Bingo hall in White City. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune