In the small town of Spray, Oregon (population 150), school begins 10 days earlier than in Portland.
An estimated 40 children headed back to school Thursday. You read that right - 40 children from kindergarten through high school.
“We have like, one junior,” said Connie Knapp, who teaches art, woodworking and a number of other things at the school.
Her husband, Ed also teaches and coaches at the school. He says enrollment has been higher in the past.
“It's down because of the economy,” he said. In these small towns, families sometimes have to move to find work and of course they take their children with them.
And that has a huge impact on the school, because state funding depends on the number of kids enrolled. That's part of the reason Spray has the “Spray Dorm” in the middle of town, directly across from the grade school and high school.
This year, the dorm is home to six young women who have international homes. They've come from Thailand, Hong Kong, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland and Poland, and they will live in this tiny town for the next ten months.
And for each international student, the State of Oregon sends money as if the girls grew up here in Spray. It’s a lifesaver for the small school.
“It helps save the school,” said Linda Donnelly, an employee of the school district for the past 19 years. She's beginning her second year as the dorm mom.
“If the school went, the town would be nothing,” said Donnelly.
And in a place small enough for everyone to know everyone else, it's hard to miss the international girls.
“They kind of stand out,” said Donnelly, noting a couple of the local boys dropped by the bus barn to greet the girls as they washed busses Thursday.
Kat Meenak, 17, is from Bangkok, Thailand. She came here after a friend recommended Spray.
“It's kind of different," she said. "When I go shopping (back home) everyone walks past. Here they say 'Hi. How are you?'” Meenak said.
Spray is located in a part of the country where you only occasionally see another driver and nearly everyone waves as you drive past. It’s disconcerting for a teen from a city of 10 million people.
“The first time they waved, I’m like, what?” said Meenak. “I was so scared to wave back!”
Tanja Bieli, 16, is from Switzerland.
She said she was surprised to find the cities are so far away but she’s ready for the adventure of living in Spray.
“I don’t really care where I am. I just want to learn English,” she said, in fluent English.
It’s a requirement to come to Spray, the students must all speak English.
Bieli is already experiencing the wonder of this small town, local boys taught her and others how to jump off rocks into the John Day River.
Connie Knapp, the art teacher, started the international program 15 years ago. She’d had international students at her high school when she grew up in Hood River.
“Oh it's wonderful, enriching for our students,” she said. In a school as small as Spray, all the local kids, some of whom will never travel internationally, will get to know the exchange students.
And the exchange students are welcomed like family.
The financial impact of the exchanges students is remarkable. They make up nearly a third of the high school. The State of Oregon sends the school $5,700 for each student, according to Principal and Superintendent Phil Starkey. That means the international students bring $34,200 to the school.
It’s a revenue stream school leaders would like to pursue further. Last year, Starkey said the school wanted to set up a second dorm for boys. Advertisements were sent to Eugene, Salem, Central Oregon and the Gorge in the hopes that at least six kids would want to come live here for the school year and experience life in a small town.
The district planned to charge $900 per student. No one responded to the ad.
But Starkey is not deterred. During the school year he plans to contact principals and leaders at big high schools hoping they will help identify students who are struggling and might benefit from the rural lifestyle offered in Spray.
“We’re not looking at it as therapeutic but it would be difficult to not be successful here,” Starkey said.
“Here, they will know everybody,” said Ed Knapp. “It’s a safe place to be. People watch out for them. They have burgers at my house.”