Think Out Loud

Why Portland elementary school enrollment is declining

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
April 18, 2023 4:55 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, April 18

Local public elementary schools in Portland are seeing declines in enrollment. Since the 2018-19 school year, Portland Public Schools has seen a decline of 17.3%, roughly a loss of 4,300 kids.

Local public elementary schools in Portland are seeing declines in enrollment. Since the 2018-19 school year, Portland Public Schools has seen a decline of 17.3%, roughly a loss of 4,300 kids.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


Since the 2018-19 school year, Portland Public Schools has seen a decline in elementary enrollment by 17.3%. The reasons include safety concerns, the rising cost of living in Portland and a plethora of other schooling choices like charter and private options. Rachel Saslow is a freelance reporter based in Portland. She joins us to share why parents are leaving neighborhood schools.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Geoff Norcross: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Geoff Norcross. Oregon’s largest school district is getting smaller. Enrollment numbers in the Portland Public School District have been dropping every year since 2019 and the biggest loss of students has been at the elementary school level. To reverse that trend, the district is actively competing for kindergartners right now. Rachel Saslow has been reporting on this for a week. She’s a freelance reporter based in Portland and she joins us now. Rachel, welcome to Think out loud.

Rachel Saslow: Hi, thank you for having me.

Norcross: Can you give me some specific numbers? What kind of enrollment drop offs are we talking about in elementary schools right now?

Saslow: Well, Portland elementary public schools are down 17.3% over the last five years, which is enough to fill 10 elementary schools of kids.

Norcross: How many kids does that translate to?

Saslow: It’s about 4,000.

Norcross: Is that a lot for PPS?

Saslow: It’s a ton. And the hit has really been mostly at the elementary level. I think if the enrollment drop had spread out from K-12 they’d be able to absorb it better. But because high schools have actually gained a few students, middle schools have stayed pretty flat, but elementary schools have really taken the hit.

Norcross: And we’ll talk about why that is in a little bit. How, though, does it compare with the rest of the state. Are other school districts seeing the same kind of drop off?

Saslow: Oregon schools are down about 5% and nationally, the country enrollment is down by about 3%. So it’s dropping everywhere but not nearly as severe as we’re seeing at the Portland public school [at the] elementary level.

Norcross: And this is a problem because as you point out in your article, funding follows enrollment. So what kind of funding hit is the district taking because of this downturn?

Saslow: Well, every student that lives within a school’s boundaries but does not attend that school, they maybe go to private school or they’re homeschooled or they move out of the district entirely, that is about $14,000 walking away. It’s kind of crass to think about it, but every student in an elementary school in every school has a dollar sign on their head and that’s how much money the school gets to do their education. So it’s a big hit for schools and it is happening immediately. This is not a problem that’s going to happen in five years. The principals are already dealing with financial repercussions of lower enrollment.

Norcross: And the principals are actively trying to get kids back into their schools and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But let’s get to the reasons why this is happening and you identify three main ones in your reporting and we’ll take each one in turn. The first one families are leaving?

Saslow: Yes. So Multnomah County has actually been losing young families for about a decade. So even during the good times, so to speak, it’s not just a pandemic problem. That is because of cost of living is one of the big ones, and I think there’s other kind of squishier liability issues, safety issues that are also forcing people out or people are choosing to live elsewhere.

Norcross: And that’s happening all over the city or are there some parts of the district that are feeling that worse than others?

Saslow: I think that’s all over the city and that’s not just a Portland problem. You look at almost every urban core in the country and they are losing population. So it’s not just a Portland problem. But the demographics are certainly shifting away from cities.

Norcross: Where are these young families going?

Saslow: Well, they are going across the line to suburbs that are perhaps cheaper. Like if you look at East County in particular, families who can’t afford an apartment or a house… and when you have a young family, you need a lot of space because little kids have a tendency to want to run and play. They need a lot of space. So, it might be cheaper to push out toward further east to get the space that you need for a young family. Moving out of state, there’s all sorts of reasons and places.


Norcross: Is there a district around the Portland public school area that is really feeling an influx now because of this flight that you’re talking about?

Saslow: I’m not sure. I didn’t really look at that too closely. I really kept my focus on what is happening within the borders of Portland public schools.

Norcross: But I’m sure it’s happening. The second reason: safety. What are parents concerned about there?

Saslow: Well, I was a little bit naive when I went into the reporting of this article because the focus of my article is really on kindergarten and how the enrollment drop is impacting kindergarten classrooms. So I went to kindergarten open houses for a few months. Many, many evenings in school libraries listening to principals sell their schools. And parents were the ones bringing the safety issue up to me. In my interviews, I wasn’t pushing them on the topic. They were saying to me, “I’m thinking about how many points of entry are there to the school, are the doors protected with key fobs? How close is the nearest playground or how close is the nearest park to the playground? And will that be a danger?” They really are looking at the infrastructure of schools from a safety perspective. And I wasn’t really expecting that, but it definitely went into the piece because I heard it over and over.

Norcross: Why weren’t you expecting that? Why did that surprise you?

Saslow: Well, in Portland public schools there have been shootings near Cleveland High School, Franklin High School and Jefferson High School just this school year. The gun violence we’re seeing is pretty much all at the high school level. So I was a little bit naive, perhaps hopeful, in thinking that families with four and five year olds were not having to think about gun violence in such a practical way already. But they very, very much are. And I don’t think that’s paranoia. I think they are reading the articles and trying to make safe choices for their kids.

Norcross: Is the district doing anything to address those concerns?

Saslow: Yes. Going into a Portland public school right now feels very different than it did three or five years ago before the pandemic. Now, at every Portland public school, during the school day, every door is locked except for the main entrance and you have to ring a buzzer and then there are surveillance cameras and someone in the office talks to you, sees what you need and then unlocks the door and lets you in. So it’s a single point of entry with cameras. And also there was a 2020 bond that passed that is going to change all of the hardware on I think every classroom door in Portland public schools to be allowed to be locked from the inside.

Norcross: The third reason for the downturn enrollment in elementary schools, you point to private and charter schools. Why are they proving to be a more attractive option for parents?

Saslow: Well, I think with enrollment down, there are fewer other kindergartners to compete with. So in Portland, you can get into a charter school or a focus school that has maybe language immersion or something like that through a lottery system. They’ve been pretty hard to get into in the past, but when I went to the open houses, I heard some principals saying, “We are really trying to get as many kindergartners as we can. So please apply.” I think there are fewer kindergartners to compete with. So this might be the year families have a pretty good chance. I think people were really throwing their name in on the list for a few different charter schools. Those are free public schools as well, but have [a] more focused feel than just the neighborhood school, which would be whatever you’re zoned for based on where you live.

Norcross: You point out that the downturn in enrollment started in the 2019-2020 school year and we all remember what happened. What does the pandemic have to do with this? If anything?

Saslow: I think actually the pandemic has a lot to do with it. I really think that the whole article is sort of a long fallout from the pandemic because Oregon schools were closed for 18 months, which is one of the longest closures in the country, and parents had a long time to figure out how they were going to educate their children. Certainly, Portland public schools were rolling out a full online education for the children. But at the elementary age that did not fill a day. I’m speaking from experience here. So some families, if they couldn’t be home with their kids all day long, they would perhaps move out of [the] district to other places that had schools that were open. Perhaps they enrolled their children in a private school that was open when the public schools were still closed. Or perhaps, this was not my story, but some families just loved homeschooling and decided to keep homeschooling their kids.

I think the pandemic really forced parents to look critically at their kids’ education and make some choices and that is still what’s happening. Parents are seeing, “Oh, there’s all these charter schools, there are private schools, there are all these different choices,” and now that we’re used to making those educational choices for our children, it makes sense that they are still evaluating things more critically.

Norcross: Yeah, the pandemic had a way of accelerating a lot of trends, including this one. For your story, you spoke with a parent whose kid has three options for elementary school and she’s trying to decide what to do. Can you talk about what she’s weighing and what she’s thinking?

Saslow: Yes. So there was one mother who was weighing her neighborhood school, a charter school, and a private school. She was going on tours of all of these. I don’t think she has gotten her lottery results back yet, but she was really open to the idea of having her children at the neighborhood school because there is something about really knowing your neighbors in that way and having all of the kids from the block all going to the neighborhood school and being on the same teams. That is just a really incredibly powerful community thing that she really believes in. But at the same time, she was also very swayed by a French immersion charter school where her children could learn different languages. And also, she was looking at some private schools where they could really dive in on different curriculum. She was looking at the Portland Forest School which is all outdoors and the children would be learning all kinds of plant identification and just getting to be outside. So she had a lot of different choices. But, in speaking to her, I don’t know what she’s going to end up choosing, but it did seem like the community aspect would be a big thing to give up.

Norcross: This sounds kind of like a silver lining of choices.

Saslow: It does. Yes, I think that the choices were really impactful for parents. I think that especially coming off of the pandemic when your choice was just to go home and teach your children as best as you could, to have lots of different schools that you can attend. And sort of picking the best one. I mean, what a wonderful thing for young families to get to have. I don’t know if that will pan out based on the charter school lottery process. I think that it will still be pretty competitive. And so while all these parents are applying to lots of schools, I don’t know how many of them they will actually get into in the end. But, certainly it feels better to get to pick something nice for your children.

Norcross: You’ve been to a few of these open houses that the district is putting on and you’ve heard the pitches that administrators are making to parents of small kids [to] “Come to our school.” What kind of things are they saying? What are their pitches?

Saslow: Let’s see. Well, it really depends. I think the neighborhood schools were saying, “We’re talking a lot about that community aspect and especially schools where your kids can take the bus or walk and that’s really wonderful and easy for young families.” They talk about class sizes which right now at the kindergarten level are very low. I went to a school that has 15 or 16 children in each kindergarten class. That’s a public neighborhood school, which again is so wonderful for those kindergarten families that their children are getting the one-on-one attention of being in a 15 kid classroom. But again, I look at those numbers and I think, “Oh, I think that the ecosystem is off.” And just because I know about how funding works, I know that that is not actually a good sign for that neighborhood school.

Norcross: You point out that historically wealthy parents have sent their kids to the neighborhood school where they could go to school with kids from other economic backgrounds, and you’ve got the kids of working class families interacting with the kids of maybe the governor. And that’s been a point of civic pride in Portland. Is that changing?

Saslow: I hope not. That is such a long standing bit of Portland culture that I think it would take a little bit longer to change. But certainly if wealthy families are looking at the kind of preschool tax and homeless tax that they are now paying, other counties are going to start looking more and more attractive. And I do think that wealthy families… I can understand the rationale for wanting to leave Multnomah County and go to other counties where you’re not paying that premium. So I can see that changing over time, but I’m not here sounding the alarm that suddenly that entire trend is now dead. I do think that that is still happening.

Norcross: Rachel, thank you so much.

Saslow: Thank you for having me.

Norcross: Rachel Saslow is a freelance reporter in Portland. She wrote about declining enrollment in Portland public elementary schools for Willamette Week.

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