Portland Public Schools district headquarters at 550 N. Wheeler Place in Portland, Oregon, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.

Oregon's largest district is looking at a second consecutive year of declining enrollment, led by falling kindergarten numbers. As a result, Portland Public Schools could see per-student funding decline.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

With a week left before the first day of school, preliminary enrollment numbers are low for Oregon’s largest school district.

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As of August 23, 2,758 kindergartners are enrolled in Portland Public Schools, a decrease of 14.69% from last year. District officials say it’s typical for enrollment numbers to increase as the start of the school year approaches.

“Kindergarten enrollment often happens late August and early September, so we’re expecting those numbers to change every day,” said Shawn Bird, the district’s deputy superintendent of instruction and school communities.

At separate times during Tuesday’s board meeting, both Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero and Bird invited families with kindergarteners to make sure they are enrolled for the fall.

“For those families who are listening in today who have kindergarten-aged children who are not yet enrolled, we’re excited to welcome you to PPS,” Bird said. “Please visit your neighborhood school or contact our early education department to learn how you can enroll your child.”

Overall, preliminary enrollment at the district is down 3.1% through Aug. 23, according to a back-to-school report shared Tuesday.

These preliminary numbers follow a 2020-21 school year with enrollment declines, both for the district and the state as a whole. Enrollment statewide declined last year by 3.73%, or about 22,000 students.

During Tuesday’s meeting, board member Julia Brim-Edwards asked district officials where students have gone, especially as the district faces another year of potential enrollment declines.

“Where did they go?” she said. “... I’m hoping we bring them back, if they’re our students and that we continue to be able to serve them.”

“But I’m curious about what impact they have... if Beaverton or Salem don’t have similar declines, we may not be the largest school district in Oregon.”

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Oregon’s next-largest districts, Salem-Keizer and Beaverton experienced enrollment declines between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, and had fewer than 40,000 students last school year, according to official numbers from the Oregon Department of Education.

State funding is dependent on student enrollment. If a student leaves a school district, the money follows them.

The district’s 2021-2022 enrollment projection is 45,623, a decrease of 1.8% from last year’s enrollment. But there is one place where enrollment is increasing: high schools.

According to district officials presenting at the meeting, current enrollments at Grant and Franklin high schools are at or close to 2,200 students. Enrollment over 2,200 would make Grant and Cleveland among the state’s 10 largest high schools.

At Cleveland High School, enrollment is at 1,720 students.

The numbers prompted PPS board member Amy Kohnstamm to suggest the board look at enrollment balancing in the district’s high schools sooner rather than later.

“It’s been a festering issue for a long time,” Kohnstamm said. “And now, when we look at these numbers, I think it’s getting indefensible.”

Enrollment for the district’s new Online Learning Academy has increased too. Numbers shared Tuesday showed 513 students enrolled in the program, with 152 on a wait list as of Aug. 24. For some grades, Bird said, the wait list was a technicality, an added step for the district’s lottery process that also gives priority to students with health conditions. Bird said some families have also declined a spot once offered, which he said could help “clear” the waitlist. The online academy is open to all PPS students.

The demographics of enrolled OLA students generally match the district’s demographics. According to PPS chief of staff Jonathan Garcia, 16.7% of students identify as Latinx, 15.5% as multiple races; 49.9% identify as white, 2% as Native-American, 9.82% identify as Black, and 7.82% identify as Asian.

District administrators said they have increased OLA staff in grades K-5 to meet the higher need for the district’s younger students.

But for students attending in-person school, the district has not made any staffing moves to reflect the preliminary decline in enrollment, particularly in kindergarten.

“We do anticipate those numbers are going to come up, as they do every year,” Bird said.

Oregon districts report enrollment numbers to the state in October, with the full membership report typically released in the spring. But even those numbers differ from actual numbers. PPS reported a 2020-2021 total enrollment of 46,924 to ODE. In its report at Tuesday’s board meeting, the actual enrollment number was nearly 700 students less than that - 46,237.

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