Sunday, December 08, 2013
Covering Dallas, Monmouth, Independence, Falls City and surrounding areas since 1868
One of Superintendent Jack Thompson's new tasks is increasing enrollment in the Falls City School District.
September 03, 2013
FALLS CITY -- Miranda Hendrickson and her family recently moved to Falls City, but she was intending to enroll her two children in schools in Dallas.
Hendrickson paid a visit to Falls City Elementary School, where her son and daughter would attend if going to school in town, just to see what it had to offer.
She was surprised, to say the least.
Her tour guide for the day was the district's superintendent, Jack Thompson, who she said took the time to answer all her questions. That was refreshing, she said, and made Hendrickson have second thoughts about school plans.
Hendrickson's son, Dylan, a sixth-grader, made his pick immediately.
"I came here for the free sports," he said, smiling.
Mom took a little more time to decide, but ultimately she agreed with her son -- for different reasons.
Just looking at the school district's budget and Oregon Department of Education reports on enrollment and graduation rates might be enough to scare some parents away from Falls City schools.
Last year, Falls City High School had an Oct. 1 enrollment of just 37 students, while the 2011-12 four-year graduation rate was just 48 percent.
Word about the not-so-stellar marks spreads fast, but there is always a story behind them. For Falls City, often its small student population produces dramatic shifts in statistics. One or two students dropping out of a graduating class can create a skewed perception, Thompson said. School officials reported last year that 18 out of 21 seniors left the school with a diploma or other credential, however only the four-year diplomas are counted toward the graduation rate.
After her visit to the school, Hendrickson decided to focus on what was not reflected in the reports. Her attention turned to class size, the welcoming atmosphere at the school, and the new focus on using technology in the classroom (See related story, Page 17A).
"Nine kids per grade?" she said. "I can guarantee my kid is going to get one-on-one (attention from a teacher) at some point in the day. You don't get that at the bigger schools."
Increasing enrollment was one of the Falls City School Board's top objectives for Thompson when he was hired this summer.
That is a challenge in a district where population growth is, and looks to continue to be, near zero.
As a result, Thompson had to employ strategies that are both old-fashioned and cutting-edge.
The first was simple: keep his door open to the community -- like he did for Hendrickson. He said that is the best way to welcome students and parents -- and answer criticism.
Kristy Major, a member of the Falls City School Board, agrees.
"The best answer is to keep making our school a resource for students and parents, and to keep advertising all that we have to offer," she said.
Major touts the district's after-school program, FACES, that offers homework time and enrichment in music, art, science and exercise. She added free sports for middle and high schoolers and free child care for kindergarteners are important programs, as well.
"These are all things we offer to the students and parents of Falls City to help both the students -- who need enrichment, activity and education -- and to the parents, many of whom work multiple jobs and are not easily able to afford child care," Major said.
The district's second strategy -- providing an iPad to every student in the district -- may put Falls City on the leading edge of technology in the area.
Major said she fully supports the investment.
"Our kids need to be able to engage and learn to use technology at an early age to be ready when they graduate high school," she said. "Our world is not simply pen and paper anymore. The more our students are familiar with and knowledgeable with technology, the more this benefits everyone."
Thompson said the district's objective is not to compete with surrounding schools for students, but to do a better job of explaining what Falls City has to offer. He added that it is critical for Polk County's school districts to continue to collaborate to provide the best opportunities for students.
"We are all public educators and we all have great things," he said. "It's what meets the needs of the families, that's what we are looking for. People that are looking for specific things and we offer those things, great, you are welcome to come here."
That being said, boosting enrollment -- and the subsequent increase in funding -- is imperative for the Falls City School District to move forward.
Thompson said the district has issues and goals that only having more students enrolled will solve. He would like to have one grade per teacher at the elementary school -- teachers now have mixed-grade classrooms.
At the high school, he wants to hire a full-time math teacher. The high school still will use an online program for math instruction this year, with a plan to bring on a part-time math teacher next school year.
Thompson said an increase of 20 students at the high school would make it possible to hire a full-time teacher. He believes that's a reasonable goal. In fact, with 48 students enrolled last week -- up 11 from last year -- the growth may have already begun.
Keeping those students and adding new ones, however, will require the district to continue to innovate and actively communicate with parents.
"It's like a good restaurant, you either live or die by word of mouth," Thompson said. "That's exactly where we are at. We are going to do everything we can to support our kids and let everybody know about it."
FALLS CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT ENROLLMENT
Enrollment as of Oct. 1 each year
Year 9-12 K-8 Total
2013-14* 48 112 142
2012-13 37 93 130
2011-12 48 100 148
2010-11 54 100 154
2009-10 59 83 142
2008-09 72 93 165
2007-08 68 95 163
2006-07 74 111 185
2005-06 69 117 186
2004-05 58 123 181
* -- Estimated on Aug. 26, 2013.
Source: Oregon Department of Education Oct. 1.