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Examining why some public school districts are seeing declining enrollment

A number of parents are switching their kids to private schools, citing increased academic rigor, smaller class sizes and better support compared to public schools.

PORTLAND, Ore. — As Portland-area public schools see a drop in enrollment, private schools are reporting in uptick in new students. 

Portland Public Schools officials have said they anticipate being down more than 3,400 students next school year. That’s a decline of about 8%. Other districts in the region, like Salem-Keizer, Beaverton and Tigard Tualatin, have also reported a decline in enrollment.

But why are students leaving? 

“This is not an easy decision for me,” said Jana Apple.

Apple said she’s had a longstanding and strong connection with the Reynolds School District. She grew up going to school there and appreciates the diversity of the student body. Apple has four kids. Three of them are school-aged. But despite her love of the teachers and schools in her public school district, she is one of a number of Portland-area parents who've said they recently made the call to switch from public school to private.

“It came to a point where it's like, something has to give. And I love my school and I love my community. But it's just really broken, the school system is really broken,” Apple said.

She said she had noticed a lack of motivation and a general change in how her kids were acting. She said she transferred all three from the Reynolds School District to Columbia Christian.

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“I need to know that my child is going to be known enough that somebody is going to pick up on signs when they're not okay,” said Apple.

Apple said the situation in public schools is tough and she wishes there were more easily accessible mental health supports for families.

“That coupled with extremely stressed out teachers who are asked to be social workers. They're not trained to be social workers and so they're experiencing trauma of their own, you know,” Apple said.

“I feel like [my children] were indirectly getting traumatized by the trauma.”

In Vancouver, Jay Hart decided to transfer his youngest child, an 11-year-old who is now in fifth grade, from the Evergreen School District to Cathedral School last year. It's a private Catholic school in Northwest Portland.

“We just decided we better put her in there and see how it goes. I was somewhat opposed to it, to be honest with you. I mean, I'm product of public schools and so is my wife,” said Hart.

But Hart said his daughter was able to figure out how to turn in an assignment while never having actually completed it.

“We wouldn’t see that it was missing. Pretty crafty,” said Hart.

“At that point, I was just watching her do much worse and getting into trouble. So I’m like, okay, we're gonna try something,” he said.

Hart said he believes teachers were overwhelmed and have been put in a tough spot.

Hart said when his daughter started at Cathedral School, she tested in the 39th percentile for the class. But a couple months later, she retested into the 89th percentile.

“They gave her the attention she needed. The school gave the structure,” said Hart.

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Apple said her kids are also doing well in private school.

“Academically they are really doing well too and thriving with expectations and accountability, something that was severely missing. They are proud of themselves and that's really refreshing.”

Ami Vensel, president of Columbia Christian School, and Amy Biggs, principal of Cathedral School, said private schools in general are seeing a lot of interest.

“Enrollment really has taken a boom increase if I’m being honest,” said Vensel. “In the last year, [I’ve had] hundreds of conversations with families. And that […] that's realistic.”

“The majority [of new students] are coming from Portland Public Schools and the schools that are located close by to the Cathedral School. Our non-Catholic rate has increased drastically. For next fall, I'm looking at close to 60% Catholic versus the 90% Catholic I was running,” Biggs said.

Both Biggs and Vensel said enrollment has increased about 15% compared to pre-pandemic years. Both Biggs’ and Vensel’s schools said their schools along with other private schools are near capacity, if not at capacity.

Biggs said she only has four to six open seats in the whole school. Before the pandemic, she said the school had about 245-250 students. She now expects to be at or near a capacity of 272 by next fall.

A representative from Columbia Christian said the increase in students may be the biggest increase they’ve ever seen of kids switching from public to their private school. Typically the school has around 275 students but next year could bring between 315-325 students.

“We have to decide where we are going to draw the line and say, ‘I’m sorry that class is full,” said Vensel.

The biggest reasons they say parents cite for switching from public to private school include increased academic rigor, smaller class sizes and more supports for parents and students.

“We have full-time instructional assistants in every class pre-K through fifth grade so kids that need more are able to get more in a small group through having extra bodies in the classroom,” said Biggs.

Vensel said in addition to prioritizing academics, Columbia Christian has also prioritized teaching children skills that benefit their emotional, spiritual and social state.

“[We are] creating time and space to talk about our feelings. You have to create time and space for them to learn that,” she said about kids in younger grade levels. 

Vensel said students in older grade levels have honest conversations with adults about anxiety and suicide.

“That's not going to scare us, right? We're not going to go away. We're right here. You have to name it. So kids know that we know and not talk around it but name it and then just provide a safe setting to have those conversations,” said Vensel.

Biggs said the fact that parents are sending their kids to a private Catholic school says a lot, especially due to the increased costs associated with the decision.

“They're willing to pay the costs associated with private Catholic education and as non Catholics, they do pay more than our Catholic families that are subsidized by our parish. So high-quality instruction, rigorous instruction, value system, everything that we're able to offer, parents are willing to pay the price in order to have that high quality,” said Biggs.

Apple acknowledged the cost of sending her kids to private school.

“It is a huge sacrifice financially, but worth every penny,” she said.

Meantime, Hart said his youngest child has benefited from private school but his older child, who is 13 years old and is in 7th grade, is doing just fine in public school.