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In Hard Times Small Schools Must Change To Survive

Oregon’s recent financial woes have pushed some of the state’s smallest school districts to make some huge changes.

12 of the state’s 16 smallest districts have become charter school districts. Administrators say the additional grant funding and flexibility are keeping their doors open.

But some educators in nearby districts see the change as a threat. Rob Manning has this look at the charter district of Elkton.

Rob Manning / OPB
Elkton, Oregon

Elkton is in the Coast Range along the Umpqua River, southwest of Eugene. It has two small school buildings along this road.

Until recently, they were both getting emptier, every year. Lisa Olson grew up in Elkton and now works for the school district.

Lisa Olson: “Our biggest problem has been that population drop. It was to the point where we were pretty close to closing our doors.”

Enter Mike Hughes. He had experience with charter schools before he became Elkton’s superintendent two and a half years ago.

Rob Manning / OPB
Elkton superintendent Mike Hughes

At his second school board meeting, Hughes began to explain the benefits of going charter: a half million dollar federal grant, and freedom from certain rules.

It also meant Elkton could lure students from outside its borders without getting that district’s approval.

Mike Hughes: “We sit smack dab in the middle of six other school districts, within a 35-mile radius. And they’re all bigger than we are. And I was hoping, if we could get 10 or 15 kids the first year, I’d be really happy. We wound up getting 30.”

He says Elkton got another 30 in its second year, this year.

Oregon K-12 districts that have become charter schools
2009-2010 enrollment numbers
District Students



Camas Valley






North Powder


Pine Eagle














Source: Oregon Department of Education

According to data from the Oregon Department of Education, the state has 12 charter school districts that have added more than 300 students in the last year alone, including families that have moved.

At least $5700 follow each student who moves from one district to another.

Mike Hughes says that makes it worth sending buses into nearby districts, even if he’s only picking up two kids. But it’s like adding insult to injury for some of Hughes’ nearby administrators.

Mike Hughes: “They were appalled that I was running a bus into their school district. Or offended, appalled or offended, I can’t remember the exact term. And I said ‘I understand. But I can legally do that’.”

Ike Launstein: “He has a right to do that – to send buses into neighboring districts. And I believe they go a couple of different directions.”

Ike Launstein runs the Reedsport schools – one of the places Elkton sends buses.

Ike Launstein: “That doesn’t fit my philosophy of how best to meet the needs of the students.”

The junior high and high school in Reedsport have become charters, too. But Launstein says he’d rather collaborate with Hughes than compete with him.

Hughes says he wants to create a national model. Elkton is rated “outstanding” by the state.

It has developed a “natural resources” curriculum with Oregon State University. And thanks to charter grant money, 21st century technology is everywhere.

Rob Manning / OPB
Elkton teacher Stephen O’Neal

Stephen O’Neal is standing in front of a huge google map projected on a computerized chalk board to teach fourth and fifth graders about the Rocky Mountains.

Stephen O’Neal: “So our natural resources – and if you look at the maps, you can see right here…”

O’Neal is in the first year of his teaching career. He says he applied to Elkton for the focus on natural resources. 

Elkton is one of the few places adding, rather than subtracting, teachers. Superintendent Hughes can’t use charter money to pay teachers. Instead, he frees up general fund money for teachers, by spending charter funds where he can.

Hughes says his competitive advantage isn’t just about money. He also has the flexibility to hire teachers like Nancy Soliem. She has a social science degree, and experience as a librarian, but she has no teaching certificate. Last year, Hughes put her in a classroom teaching sociology.

Nancy Soliem: “Did I have a burning desire to teach? No. Both my parents were teachers, I swore I’d never be one, and I’ve had to sort of eat those words. But no, I do enjoy the students.”

Moves like that have caught the attention of Oregon’s statewide teachers’ union. Becca Uherbelau is with the Oregon Education Association.

Becca Uherbelau: “Our concerns generally about charters have been that not all teachers in the classroom are required to be licensed. So that would remain a concern for these school districts that are moving to full charters.”

Students say they appreciate the teachers that have come in and the additional students.

Norah Owings is an Elkton 11th grader.

Norah Owings: “The changes that have been made are definitely for the better. And it’s so great to have all these people here, because I feel like the more students we get, the more chances we have to do more stuff.”

Elkton is in the last year of its charter planning grant. That means like dozens of charter schools before it, Elkton will have to see whether it can keep going on its own, without the additional federal funding to prop it up next year.

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