News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Santiam Canyon enrollment improving after 2020 disasters

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

Enrollment in the Santiam Canyon School District (SCSD) is improving after a steep drop due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 wildfires.

According to numbers published by the Oregon Department of Education on Oct. 20, a total of 530 students were enrolled in Santiam Elementary School and Santiam Junior/Senior High School at the beginning of the current school year.

This is 8.3 percent lower than enrollment in the 2018-2019 school year, but represents an improvement over the estimated 15 percent drop in students after the disasters of 2020.

Superintendent Todd Miller said a supportive community and dedicated teachers have allowed the district to recover and he expects enrollment to continue an upward trend.

“[Enrollment] is coming back up steadily now,” he said.

The pandemic drove down enrollment throughout the country as classes moved online and families were forced to relocate amid economic upheaval, and SCSD was no exception. 

Then, on Sept. 7, 2020, the Beachie Creek Fire spread rapidly, destroying numerous homes throughout the district, and many families have still been unable to return as efforts to build temporary and permanent housing have not kept up with local need.

The drop in enrollment created a potential $700,000 budget shortfall for the 2021-2022 school year. However, efforts by district leaders including Miller and former School Board Chair Rich Moore secured state funding that kept enrollment-based revenue at pre-fire levels while SCSD and other wildfire-affected districts recover.

The Oct. 20 report also noted a 10.7 percent increase in staffing between both schools since the 2018-2019 school year, including teachers, teaching assistants and counselors. Miller said this was in part because educators at SCSD pride themselves on working together and building a culture that supports staff and students.

“We have some amazing people, and we appreciate what they do for our kids,” said Miller.

The report also noted math and reading scores were below the state average among grade schoolers, with 27 percent of students meeting English performance expectations, compared to a 44 percent state average, and 31 percent of students meeting math performance expectations, compared to a 36 percent state average. These numbers are comparable to local test scores seen before the pandemic, though statewide averages have fallen since the 2018-2019 school year.

Miller said the district has identified these test results as areas to improve and last year implemented a new system to give students individualized attention, with students at similar performance levels in math and reading broken out into small groups and given instruction based on their needs and aptitudes. Miller said this teaching strategy is also meant to help with learning gaps that developed as a result of prolonged remote learning, a national trend in which students return to in-person instruction without the skills matching their grade levels.

Miller said SCSD is already seeing improvement among students, particularly through a new evaluation system used by the state called the Average Gap Score that compares test results between students in similar communities and demographics. Based on comparisons to elementary schoolers in communities similar to SCSD, he said, local students are well above average, scoring 4 or 5 out of 5 points in all categories.

He also noted, in the wake of the pandemic and wildfires, a higher number of parents were opting their kids out of standardized testing – as many as 35 percent. This counted against the district’s overall score, and he said it made sense that during trying times standardized tests would take a back seat.

Charter school enrollment still dropping

While the in-person schools are recovering, Oregon Charter Academy (OCA), an online school which is also part of SCSD, continues to see dramatic declines in enrollment. Enrollment since the 2018-2019 school year has fallen from 4,463 to 2,768 this school year, a 38 percent drop. 

Miller said this decline was impacted heavily by the pandemic, but in a unique way. 

Under Oregon law, if three percent of students within a school district transfer from in-person learning to an online school, the district has the option to deny further transfers. Miller said this law mostly went unenforced, with many districts not even keeping track of the percentage of transfers.

But after in-person enrollment plunged statewide due to the pandemic, districts began denying transfers above three percent to retain students. And because their ability to enforce the cap lasts for one year after the cap is reached, districts continued denying transfers even if online students fell below three percent.

Meanwhile, a number of students chose to transfer from OCA back to in-person learning as schools reopened. Miller said this created a “one-way street” where few students were transferring in to replace departing children, causing a continued decline in enrollment even as the impact of the pandemic lessened.

Miller said, just as a pendulum swings one direction, it inevitably swings back and he believes enrollment at OCA will recover and stabilize, though not necessarily to pre-pandemic levels.

“I think we will find that the numbers will slowly trend back to some more online students soon and level out again,” he said.

Santiam Canyon School District

Santiam Elementary and Santiam Junior/Senior High Schools:  530 Students

Oregon Charter Academy:  2,768 Students

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