ABOVE PHOTO: At West Linn-Wilsonville’s Meridian Creek Middle School, educators say enrollment gains during the pandemic came about because of a culture of belonging and efforts to make sure students and their families are cared for during the pandemic. – PMG File Photo
When the pandemic hit, school districts across Oregon saw a drop in enrollment. And the West Linn-Wilsonville School District in Clackamas County was no different.
In the fall of the 2019-20 school year, total enrollment in the district sat at 9,802 students. By the next fall, that number decreased to 9,295; a decrease of 3.8%.
Where West Linn-Wilsonville differs from other districts in the state is in the enrollment of its Latino population, which climbed during the pandemic.
It’s one of the few districts in the state that can say that.
The question is: Why?
District officials say they don’t have a concrete answer.
Superintendent Kathy Ludwig said district officials and school staff work hard to make sure all students have the support they need to engage in school.
“That requires identifying individual needs of our families and then meeting those needs as best we can,” Ludwig said. “We have seen relatively strong retention of enrollment because of the efforts our school staff have made to maintain those relationships during this challenging school year.”
But clearly some effort on the district’s part is working better for Latino students than white students.
West Linn-Wilsonville announced last summer it would have to remain in “comprehensive distance learning” for the fall, rather than reopen brick-and-mortar schools. As in most other Oregon school districts, some parents sought other options. And it’s unclear where the students who didn’t re-enroll went: home school, charter school, private schools.
All the district knows for sure is: The district gained 42 Latino students during the pandemic, while it lost 555 white students.
“We have always been very intentional in making connections with our Latino community,” Ludwig said.
She said community information meetings always include a Spanish interpreter, the district has a English Language Development Program, Dual Language Program and World Languages Program for students of different language backgrounds. Additionally, Ludwig cited cultural festivals and student groups as critical to an inclusive school culture. “Those intentional moves build school culture over time and lead to meaningful relationships between our schools and our families,” she said.
Ludwig said another way the district was able to meet students’ and families’ needs during the pandemic was through the creation of the Family Empowerment Center. The center, located at Wilsonville High School, was formed as a way to make a concerted effort to help district families. It offers food, clothing, school supplies and mental health supports and community resources to all district families.
Maria Horton, the bilingual family engagement specialist with the district, heads up the program.
But the center opened to families in October 2020, after the start of the current school year. So, while it seems to be a valuable resource, it’s unlikely it had any effect on fall enrollment numbers.
One school’s efforts
Meridian Creek Middle School, part of the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, attributes any enrollment gains to a culture of belonging and tenacious efforts by school officials to make sure students and their families are cared for during the pandemic.
Principal Annikke Olson said she knew Meridian Creek had to get structures in place to support historically marginalized groups of students when the pandemic hit.
“I would say the foundation of what we do in our school: we know our people. And when the pandemic started last year, we really worked to have systems in place where we knew which kids were connected to school or not,” she said. “And the kids that we were not having any connection with, we literally worked quadruple-time to find a way to get connected with those families, just with our No.1 question: Are you okay?”
Olson said the answer to that question often isn’t about homework or why the student isn’t logging on. Often, she said, families need their tangible needs met: like paying for food and rent.
If a teacher or office staff member notices that a student is absent, they call the home the next day. Olson said the school created a system of spreadsheets to track daily attendance to make sure no one fell through the cracks.
Olson said the arrival of COVID-19 heightened the focus on student wellbeing, but it didn’t start it. Long before the pandemic, Meridian Creek aimed to know each student and their needs personally. Pre-pandemic, if a student was absent, a similar check-in process would take place, just not as quickly.
District officials say that work is effective in keeping virtual attendance steady. But it does little to explain why enrollment for the Latino population is higher than before the pandemic.