A new school year begins Aug. 31 in Vancouver Public Schools, and incoming Hazel Dell Elementary kindergartner Gavin Bethell can’t wait.
The first day of school also has an alternative name for Bethell — Bus Day.
“I’m excited to go on a school bus,” the 5-year-old said, “because I’ve never been on one before.”
New experiences from new students are a sign of new hope for Clark County’s school districts. They’re bracing for what they hope is an enrollment rebound after districts saw declines in enrollment in 2020-21 because of COVID-19 concerns, particularly among the youngest learners.
And for the past two weeks, some kindergartners — such as Gavin — got a head start on school. Approximately 900 students across Vancouver Public Schools wrapped up the district’s Jump Start, a two-week program for incoming kindergartners to learn the rules and routines of their new school.
But it remains uncertain just how big kindergarten classes will be. Parents sometimes opt to delay or “redshirt” their children who would be young for their kindergarten class to gain another year of developmental readiness for a classroom setting. Kindergarten is not required in Washington, and the cut-off age to enroll students into kindergarten is 5 by Aug. 31. But last school year, more families held off enrolling their would-be kindergartners — regardless of where they fell on the age cut-off timeline — because of disruptions caused by COVID-19.
At Hazel Dell, forecasted enrollment is 330 in grades K-5, including 43 kindergartners registered as of last week. Second-year principal Lisa Reed is hopeful that number bumps up slightly; she said about 20 percent of the kindergarten class is enrolled by their families the final week of summer.
Hazel Dell has boosted the number of kindergarten teachers to four. Teacher Chelsea Hendryx said she’s seen varying levels of readiness among her incoming kindergarten students from those with zero school experience to some who began kindergarten last year, then withdrew to start fresh this fall.
“It’s pretty widespread,” Hendryx said. … “We are picturing, age-wise, a big variety.”
Attract, retain families
By October of last year, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction reported a 2.82 percent decrease in enrollment statewide, driven by kindergarten numbers that plummeted by 14 percent.
Clark County districts weren’t spared, but all are now forecasting higher enrollment numbers this fall, in spite of rising COVID cases with the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant.
Evergreen superintendent Mike Merlino said recently he believes full-time in-person instruction required by all districts will be the difference-maker for families who might have sought after charter, private or other alternative school choices. Evergreen was the lone district in Clark County to stick to twice-a-week in-person instruction when neighboring districts expanded to four and five days a week.
“Having kids back five days a week is going to be a significant thing,” Merlino said.
There are early signs enrollment may not fully rebound to pre-pandemic levels. The budgeted enrollment numbers for the region’s three largest districts, Evergreen, Vancouver and Battle Ground, are higher than actual enrollment in 2020-21, but still below figures from 2019-20. Ridgefield, however, is projecting 3,560 students in 2021-22 — an increase from its enrollment the past two years (3,326 total students in 2020-21; 3,406 in 2019-20).
Funding is tied to per-pupil enrollment, and schools that lose students could see cuts. Pandemic relief money is helping district budgets in the interim.
Washougal schools are budgeting for 2,992 students this school year. It concluded last year with 2,778 students — about 250 fewer students than in 2019-20, according to the district.
Superintendent Mary Templeton isn’t changing the script on how to attract or retain families in the district she’s led since 2018. Her pitch to families is how the district is “the best game in town” and this year, it’s highlighted by new programs such as its dual-language immersion and the expanded Washougal Learning Academy for families seeking more flexibility.
Her words come from the heart, Templeton said.
“We’re learning a lot through this pandemic,” the superintendent said. “We’re approaching the challenge as an opportunity to invent schools in a different way. The pandemic really forced us to stop the wheel for a second and connect with parents to ask them intentionally, ‘What are you looking for?’ and ‘What do you need?’ and it also gave us the time and the resources to create systems and programs we think are a lot more family friendly and a lot more flexible.
“We’re adamant our children are going to be successful and are willing to do the hard work and heavy lifting in order to make that happen.”