More students leave Forest Grove, Hillsboro under school choice law

by: CHASE ALLGOOD - On Monday during lunch, veteran Gaston students involved in a group called Ignite Mentors mixed with new students, including some who open enrolled with the district this year. In the high-stakes game of school choice, a concept that earned a thumbs-up from Oregon politicians last year, Gaston appears to have come out a winner.

As the first three days of a new academic year came to a close Friday, district administrators held their breath and counted heads. According to preliminary numbers, Gaston attracted a net gain of 34 students through the state's new open enrollment law, House Bill 3681.

The figures made part-time Superintendent Dave Beasley smile.

"We have 66 new kids this year who are either on inter-district transfer or on regular transfer," said Beasley, who has watched his student census decline from a high of 700 to a rock-bottom 450 over the last five years.

On Sept. 7, the district claimed 483 enrollees.

"Some were here last year, but more than half are new to the district," Beasley said. "For us, HB 3681 has been an unqualified success."

Early numbers tell a different story for several other county school districts, including Hillsboro and Forest Grove. Officials in those districts reported net losses of 11 students and 69 students, respectively, as a result of maneuvers on the open enrollment chessboard.

Forest Grove spokeswoman Connie Potter said her district's overall student census was down by 178, from 5,590 last June to 5,768 in early tallies last week, but that "much more reliable numbers" will be available by early October. She added that most of the students who live inside district boundaries but exited to other districts "were not actually enrolled in our schools" in 2011-12.

They were either home schooled, attended private school or "were already attending other districts and were grandfathered in," Potter said.

Hillsboro "came out of the first round of this process relatively even," said Beth Graser, communications director for that district. While 114 students left the district for other systems, 103 chose to enroll in Hillsboro schools, for a net loss of 11.

Losing students

Across the state last spring, school boards had the option of saying "no thanks" to accepting more students, but most districts in Washington County eventually warmed to the idea.

"If we don't open our doors as well, our only potential is to lose students," Forest Grove School District business manager Mike Schofield said in February, the same month the school board approved open enrollment in the wake of flat or declining enrollment in recent years.

In Gaston, because every pupil filling a seat means between $6,000 and $9,000 in state revenue, a single gain or loss in the student count is critical. Paying teacher salaries and buying necessary supplies demands adequate income — the same story in every public district across the state.

"Gaston itself is not growing," Beasley noted. "If we didn't have the open enrollment model, it would make it tough for our district to remain viable."

Rules change

HB 3681, which became law in Oregon Jan. 1, changed the rules for students seeking transfers out of their local districts. Instead of requiring the home district to release a student, it's now the pupil's prerogative to leave unimpeded if the desired district has room and allows such transfers.

It's different from inter-district transfers occurring outside the HB 3681 application window, which lasted from March 1 to May 1. Those students "must receive permission to leave the district in which they reside and (gain) permission from the district they wish to attend," said Banks Superintendent Bob Huston, whose 1,126-student district in the county's northwest corner counted a net gain of 24 open enrollment transfers the first week of 2012-13.

Huston was a bit more circumspect — but no less pleased — than Beasley early this week.

"The bottom line is that our overall enrollment is down 10 students from last year," HUston said, but the census "would be down more if we hadn't had those out-of-district students transfer in."

For Gaston's Beasley, open enrollment could be the key to saving his district from consolidation with nearby Yamhill-Carlton, something school board members mulled as student numbers and revenue dipped ever downward.

"This has kept our numbers stable, so we're not planning on cutting days," Beasley observed. "We added back a music teacher and a halftime elementary teacher."

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