OPB is tracking the effects of budget cuts over the course of this school year. It's a series we're calling "Learning with Less."
Public schools are seeing larger classes and fewer course offerings. And as Rob Manning reports, some parents are responding to those changes by seeking out alternatives -- in the private school sector.
Matt Risser and Damian Ntawumpora are teenagers who left public schools because they felt were too big and unfriendly.
"The people there weren't very nice to me, I suppose. I did have friends, though. It was a group of about five of us that were mainly nerds, and we didn't get along with anyone else, and the other kids picked on us, and we were in our own little group by ourselves," says Risser.
"I was pretty much a nobody, because the place was too big," says Ntawumpora.
Ben Sherman and Aaron Hollomon have similar stories about their public school experiences, and say troubles extended into the classroom.
"It was really huge class sizes, and I had to drop out of a French class because there were 40 students in it," says Sherman.
"You answer a question, that's really all the individual time you get from the teacher during the day. It's usually, teaching like a giant mass of students, not each individual student," says Hollomon.
All four of those boys now attend Portland-area private schools. It's part of an overall growth trend among many private schools. But it's hard to pin down the numbers exactly.
Statewide public school enrollment figures, just out this week, have remained stable at 560,000 students over the last year. Private school numbers aren't included in that report. Until last year, the Department of Ed collected data from private schools that were willing to participate.
Those unofficial numbers showed 2010 private schools having their fewest students since 2003 -- at around 45,000 students total.
That's consistent with what Mark Siegel learned when he surveyed private schools recently. Siegel directs the Oregon Federation of Independent Schools. He says schools lost students during the recession. But now, as public schools continue to cut their budgets, private school enrollment is making a comeback.
"The schools that had suffered downturns have been able to reverse that trend, or at least stop it, and getting back to and are seeing varying levels of recovery, approaching full enrollments that they had before the economic crisis hit. As the Oregon public schools experience the economic up and downturns, affect the private schools, as well," says Siegel.
Damian Ntawumpor and Matt Risser attend Portland Lutheran School in the low-income Rockwood neighborhood of Gresham. The school's director, Donn Maier, says Portland Lutheran has grown over the last two years.
"So we started this school year with eight percent more students than the previous school year. And that was a 13 percent growth over the one before that. We're currently at 250, we were at, about 203, two years ago," says Maier.
There are a few reasons families bring their kids to his school, says Maier. Certainly the small class sizes are part of it. Maier points out a first grade class with 15 kids. There are 18 in the kindergarten.
"I think the big difference here is the relation aspect of that –-- with each other, with the teacher, the religious aspect of what we do," says Maier.
Maier says primary kids have what he calls "Jesus time" in the morning, a lunchtime prayer, and a weekly worship.
"So all our teachers are active Christian teachers, so they bring that understanding of relationship with them to the classroom," says Maier. Students do not have to be Lutheran to attend. But many are, and Maier says he hears from some applicants seeking an even stronger Christian focus.
Veronica Gentle is a Salem-area parent who opted for a Catholic education for her son. She says she supports public education, but didn't like the growing class sizes at her neighborhood elementary.
"So I didn't realize that having a first grade with 24 kids would be considered a small class. To me, that was a big class, but it was OK. And what happened is we lost a lot of teachers, so, from first grade to second grade, it went from 24 kids to 32 kids," says Gentle. She sent her boy to Saint Joseph's – a Catholic elementary school in Salem. She says her son is now in a class of 14.
"So he gets a lot of individual attention. We're not necessarily Catholic -- he's actually become baptized, he made the decision to do that since he's been back there. You know, I believe in the public school system. So it was a really difficult choice to move him," says Gentle.
Gentle says a local secular private school was too expensive. Saint Joseph costs $4,500 a year. The lower grades at Portland Lutheran cost $5,500. At Northwest Academy in downtown Portland, tuition tops $16,000 a year for middle schoolers. It's $18,000 for high schoolers.
Admissions director, Lanie Ettinger, says Northwest Academy is different from Christian schools.
"I think that's something that's to our advantage. The curriculum, when you come here, it's very much like a liberal arts college, that's for middle and high school-aged people. But it is something that we're aware of in terms of tuition costs, that there is a difference," says Ettinger.
Administrators at Portland Lutheran and Northwest Academy call private education an investment – that pays off in admission to a good college and scholarships. But they say they can't guarantee results – and they concede strong public school students can get scholarships, too. Northwest Academy officials say that families value the collegiate atmosphere, the focus on the arts, and small classes.
Remember this concern from Ben Sherman?
"It was really huge class sizes, and I had to drop out of a French class because there were 40 students in it.
"Where a family experiences classes of 40 for their children, you know, our 15 to 20 in every class looks really good," says Mary Folberg, school founder and head. "We try to keep our language classes under 12."
Folberg says her school's enrollment was essentially flat for about four years, with some 120 students. She says now, it's growing again.
"We are at about 139 students this year, and project closer to 150 next year, so we're definitely back in a growth mode," says Folberg.
Ben Sherman is now most of the way through his freshman year at Northwest Academy. He says the cost isn't a hardship on his family. But it has taught him something: motivation.
"It is a lot of money -- tuition here. So my parents are always telling me that if I'm not doing very well in classes, then they're probably going to take me out, because they really want to get their money's worth," says Sherman, laughing.
Private schools like Northwest Academy and Portland Lutheran do offer financial aid to families that qualify – sometimes a third of their students or more. Administrators say lately, more Oregon families are seeking that help.
Sources for this story came to us via our Public Insight Network. Learn how you can become a source and share what you know at www.opb.org/publicinsight.