Student flight is on the rise in Forest Grove schools

Six years ago, Forest Grove schools were bursting at the seams, with classrooms in kindergarten through high school corralling a healthy 6,144 students.

For three years after that, enrollment was relatively flat, producing a differential of fewer than 100 students between 2007 and 2010.

Now the census hovers around 5,835 after 200 students exited the district between October 2011 and October 2012.

Next year, the numbers are expected to dip even lower. With administrators predicting that another 100 pupils will leave before Halloween - Oct. 1 is the bellwether date for fall enrollment - the sizeable drop has turned into a specter that's haunting the district's bottom line.

Students take dollars with them

Districts receive an average of $6,000 per student each year in education funding from the state. Some students, such as those in English Language Learners or special education classes, 'weigh' more than others in terms of the payment formula.

But because the Oregon Department of Education has a 'stop-loss' policy in place that stretches the revenue loss for declining districts over two years, using the higher enrollment figure as a basis for payment, Forest Grove didn't suffer financially from its enrollment drop this year.

The downside is that the district likely will be slapped with an overall loss of $1.5 million in 2012-13 connected to a 'weighted' enrollment plunge of 253 students. Piling on to the district's money woes, according to district business manager Mike Schofield, is the reality that next year's projected 100-student drop will adversely affect funding in 2013-14.

'Our enrollment is shrinking and so are some of the additional weighting factors like ELL,' Schofield noted. 'Our loss of around 200 students, together with the other components, translates to more like 250 students' revenue-wise.

The $1.5 million price tag tied to the falling enrollment issue amounts to a sobering 3 percent of the $49.1 million operational budget proposed for 2012-13 by Superintendent Yvonne Curtis, which includes $3.1 million in cuts to staff, programs and school days.

The district budget committee approved the overall figure May 17, and the spending blueprint now moves on to the school board, which is scheduled to vote on it after a public hearing June 11.

Whether board members decide to bump up the budget's bottom line or reduce it - they're allowed to do so by 10 percent either way - district resources most certainly will be used to teach fewer students by the time the school bell rings in September.

It's a trend that has administrators losing sleep at night, and Schofield sharpening his pencil to make the ledger balance.

Census numbers provided by the district show that between 2008 and 2012, enrollment fell across all demographic groups. And while Forest Grove schools are losing both white and Latino students, it's losing white students at a slightly faster rate.

In 2008-09, there were 2,838 Latino students and 3,352 white students in the district. Between 2009 and 2011, the Latino rolls grew by 123, while the white student census fell by 308.

Today, there are 2,866 Latino students and 2,880 white students - a nearly identical number. It's possible that next year, the number of Latino pupils will outpace the number of white pupils for the first time ever.

At the same time, the number of English Language Learners district-wide is in decline as well. The ELL census jumped to a high of 1,550 in 2010 but this year includes just 1,278 students.

And the number of students who qualify for special education services peaked in 2010 at 864. This year that group is down to 825.

'The drop is students moving out of the district,' said special education director Brad Bafaro, adding that he isn't expecting a further decline in 2012-13. 'Based on our current numbers' and the number of referrals, he's forecasting a slight increase in the count.

Economics driven

English Language Development coordinator Leonard Terrible, who oversees the district's efforts to teach English to students whose first language is something else, weighed in on possible factors driving the changes to the ELL population.

Over the past two years, not counting this year, the ELL program 'has exited 455 students,' said Terrible, the administrator in charge of making sure English learners successfully transition to general education classes during their school careers in Forest Grove.

'These students have proven by [passing the state's] English Language Proficiency Assessment or by a body of evidence that their proficiency level is sufficient [for them] to profit from general education classes without the added support from ELL instruction,' said Terrible.

He cited a second reason for the drop in ELL students. 'There's a reduction that is economics driven,' noted Terrible. 'Families have left the district because they can't find adequate employment.'

Terrible's theory was backed up by Marcia Camacho, who teaches ELL at Cornelius Elementary School.

'The ELPA test is used to exit [students] from ELL once they score at a 5,' noted Camacho. 'Since we are now doing more test prep for that exam, students are starting to score better and exit.'

At Cornelius Elementary, where more than 70 percent of the student body is Latino, Camacho said she's 'heard of several families in our building who are moving back' to Mexico or Central America 'due to the bleak job situation.'

That could help explain the exodus of Hispanic students from the Forest Grove district.

'Successful exiting'

Over the past five years, the ELL population at Forest Grove High has 'gone from approximately 230 active ELLs to a projected 104 ELLs in 2012-13,' according to Terrible. 'This is a good thing,' he said. 'It shows the ELD interventions are successful.'

Even though both groups are trending downward, district data shows that the drop in ELL students is at a sharper decline than that of Latino students, supporting the idea that a good portion of Latino pupils are moving out of ELL, not the district.

Terrible took a stab at why: 'Successful exiting,' he said simply.

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