More students than last year show up for Ashland School District’s first day of school
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Despite declining enrollment in recent years locally and statewide, when Ashland school doors opened Thursday, about 100 more students than last year walked the hallways and into classrooms, an uptick of 4%.
On the first full day back for K-12 students after some students spent half-days on campus Wednesday, the school district also celebrated fresh spaces and a fresh focus for a new school year. Ashland Middle School opened its doors with new, modern classrooms for art and science, as well as special education, English as a Second Language (ESL) students, and spaces for administrative personnel, part of a $108 million-bond approved by Ashland voters.
The school year begins with improvements to security and safety as well, and improved heating, venting and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and technological infrastructure. The district also plans to unveil renovations to TRAILS Outdoor School (formerly John Muir Outdoor School) in October, with administrators looking ahead to a school year focused on fostering connections and academic excellence.
“The energy of a new year is phenomenal,” said Samuel Bogdanove, superintendent of Ashland School District, during an interview with Ashland.news at the district office Wednesday. “People are rested and ready and excited to start … you go into the sites on the first day and you see kids’ eyes light up. It’s an infectious energy.”
Freshmen and sixth-graders had their first half day on Wednesday, with seventh and eighth graders, and 10th through 12th-graders started Thursday, Sept. 1.
Bognadove praised the new middle school renovations, which will showcase a new gym in October. Bogdanove said it’s an interesting time to be building such significant projects because of the economy, including supply chain and vendor issues, but he said he has been impressed by Adroit’s construction work, and by the commitment by the community to provide improvements to the school by voting for bond issues.
“To see the school that the community has given our kids, blows me away,” Bogdanove said.
Sixth-graders on Wednesday got the first look at the building, according to Bogdanove, but seventh and eighth-graders would get to appreciate the difference as they walked through the doors on Thursday.
“The staff is so excited, and to be able to start day one in the school made such a difference,” he said.
Erika Bare, assistant superintendent, who saw reactions from middle schoolers Thursday, said that for many of them, “It feels like Christmas.”
Bogdanove thanked Adroit Construction and HMK Project Management for their continued work on the project.
Bogdanove, who is starting his third school year as superintendent and 23 years overall served in the district, said he’s looking forward to the 2022-23 school year as he sees it as another piece of returning students to normalcy.
“Our kids had a lot of what we call ‘unfinished learning’ throughout COVID,” Bogdanove said. “We really made some pretty significant strides instructionally last year, but we know that we continue to see mental health issues, we continue to see an increase in behavioral health issues, so I think, this year, it’s again really focusing on a more normal school year … really focusing on excellence, whether it’s academics or whatever that might be, and really focusing on fostering connections.”
Thanks to funding from the state, Ashland is also boosting its mental health services for students on campus.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bogdanove said the state’s School Investment Account (SIA) helped school districts like Ashland’s build up their mental health and wellness efforts. Ashland School District is preparing to more than double its mental health staff.
“There’s always a greater need that we can’t always meet, but we can always increase our counselors, our mental health specialists, and provide some real oversight there,” he said. “It’s a richer school-based mental health model than we’ve ever had.”
Bare said the school district now employs three mental health counselors: one at Ashland High, one at Ashland Middle School, and one who serves students at the district’s three elementary schools. In the past, the district contracted with all providers, but now employs some counselors directly, which she said helps remove some barriers for students who need mental health services.
Prior to the pandemic, Bare said a large group of individuals at the district were helping to coordinate how state funding through SIA could support the wellbeing of students.
“As part of that plan, they incorporated additional time at our elementary schools for child development specialists, and so they act as kind of elementary school counselors in a lot of ways and do a lot of work on social-emotional learning and support groups and just making sure that our kids are feeling good and OK about being in school,” Bare said. “Prior to this, they were part-time for the most part, and now all of our elementary schools have a full-time counselor, and then our two-option schools have half-time counselors or child development specialists.”
This year, Ashland High School is also able to refer students to a full-time mental health counselor at La Clinica de Valle in Medford, a community-based health center, which provides additional support compared with previous years.
“There are definitely mental health needs that exceed what a school can do, but what we can do is we can provide some liaison to help connect families with appropriate community providers,” Bogdanove said.
Navigating COVID-19 in 2022
The district is cognizant of the presence of COVID-19 but won’t be enforcing physical distancing or masking regulations at this time, according to Bogdanove, though students can opt to wear masks.
“A lot of the restrictions that were in place are really no longer requirements and it’s clear that COVID is very much still with us,” Bogdanove said. “We know that some of our local businesses in Ashland have had pretty significant experiences with employees.”
In January, the district closed the high school temporarily and went to online learning due to COVID-19 impacts on its staffing level.
“Those things could happen, but I’m optimistic that that won’t be the case,” he said, “so our plan is to operate as we normally would.”
Bogdanove said the district has been transitioning from “emergency management” back to a sense of normalcy throughout the past two years, including the return of in-person classes and assemblies in 2021, interrupted by the temporary closure in January.
“I don’t think we ever left the basics entirely, because that’s what we do,” he said. “But I think it is being able to devote more attention to our own learning and to the teaching and learning of our kids and focus on that without having to focus much on virus management.
“Much of that management burden has really lifted, which frees us up to focus on learning,” he added. “Again, the virus is still out there … but we’re optimistic and people do have vaccinations available.”
District plans rezoning to address declining enrollment trend
The district is working with FloAnalytics to conduct a demographic study late this year to help predict enrollment trends for the next three to 10 years and potentially identify new attendance zones for Walker, Bellview and Helman elementary schools, Bogdanove said.
“Once that report is complete, we’re going to be looking at shifting attendance zones for the three elementary schools,” Bogdanove said. “That process will be made clear to the public and it will have touch points where the public can come in and join us in that conversation about potential plans and potential rezoning.”
When open enrollment, which allowed students to come into a district from anywhere, ended in the 2018-19 school year, Bogdanove said the school district had brought in 300 open enrollment students.
“Each year, those kids have moved through the system and have been graduating,” Bogdanove said.
“The numbers at Walker have been dropping as these open enrollment students move on and get older. So it’s now time for us to really look at where our population lines are.
“It’ll be a gradual rezoning,” he added, “so folks that are invested or have kids in a certain neighborhood school, they don’t necessarily have to go immediately over to a new school if their zone isn’t working out right. We’ll be able to sort that through and make sure that we have some flexibility to address that, but over time, those attendance zones will be redrawn, mostly with kids who are coming in new to the school system.”
Bogdanove said any impacts felt by rezoning will be effective during the 2023-2024 school year.
Those interested in learning more about rezoning can check for updates in the district’s weekly newsletter published on the school district website.
During the last two years, Bogdanove said the entire state of Oregon has lost roughly enrolled 11,000 students.
“One of the big questions is how much bounce-back will come with COVID,” he said. “In our case, it was COVID and what we knew was going to happen with our open enrollment kids as they graduated out. But our current numbers are above our projections at every site, so that’s very exciting news. We’re having to figure out how to staff additional classrooms as opposed to adjusting further.
“That’s a great problem to have,” he added.
Bare shared excitement about the precise numbers.
“Our enrollment is picking up a bit compared with last fall,” Bare told Ashland.news. “It looks like we’re going to have about 2,588 students starting the school year with us. Last year at the same time, we had 2,478, so about 100 more kids this year than we had last year, which is really exciting.”
Many students and their families are moving from out of state and choosing Ashland School District when they get here, according to Bare, while there are some students coming in from other areas of the Rogue Valley as well.
“We do have some students returning who were just really not engaged in school over the course of the pandemic, or chose different options during the pandemic, who are now coming back,” she said.
“All of our elementary schools have more enrollment than they did last year as well,” Bare said. “All of our sites do. We’re thrilled. We were definitely impacted in the same way that the rest of the state was with enrollment.”
District-wide enrollment had been fairly stable around 2,922 students, give or take a margin of 50 students, for several years, according to Bare, and numbers since then had been on the decline until this year.
“There are a number of factors — of course, the pandemic was significant,” Bare said. “The fires were significant. We did have a good population of folks who needed to find new housing and could not find it in Ashland.
“We also were impacted by the change in open enrollment and the change in that,” she added, noting the end of the open enrollment law in 2018. “We used to have a significant number of students who came to Ashland through open enrollment ….”
Safety & security
Bogdanove, the superintendent, also addressed school safety and the impact from the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman entered a school and killed 19 students and two teachers on May 24.
“I think it affects all of us on a very human level that these are all our kids, these are all our teachers and colleagues, whether they’re in Uvalde, Texas, or down the road in Medford, or here in Ashland, and you can’t not feel for that community and what happened,” Bogdanove said. “You can’t not ask, ‘how can we stop this?’”
Bogdanove said, thanks to the bond, the district has been able to take additional security measures. While he doesn’t want to publicize the specifics of the safety upgrades, Bogdanove said the bond has helped provide some of the additional physical security measures for Ashland schools and make the campuses more secure.
“We know that staff awareness, staff training and following through on those things, what people do in those circumstances, has a lot to do with it,” he said. “We do have training that we do … for staff and review and safety procedures.”
“When an incident like Uvalde occurs, we’re constantly under review,” he added. “I would say that security is on a continuous improvement process.”
Ashland schools currently do not have a student resource officer (SRO), something the district has had in the past, but Bogdanove would like to see it can happen down the road. The position traditionally is paid for partly by the school district and partly by the police department.
“We’ve had several fabulous SROs over the years and, I think, a really strong partnership with Ashland police,” Bogdanove said. “The question of how to fund those positions is a challenge for both the district and for the city.”
Under the best scenario, Bogdanove said SROs form relationships with students and staff and the aim is to “head off” problems at a relationship level before they get to anything else.
“When you don’t have that and law enforcement’s coming in cold without a knowledge of our school or without a knowledge of our kids, it’s a recipe for challenges,” he said. “I think that we’re very open to finding a way to resource that at some point in the future. But that said, having a SRO is never a guarantee because they’re one person, in a large area that has to be covered. It’s really (that) everybody has to have their eyes and ears open.”
Bogdanove is also excited to start the year out, as of early October, as the first school district in Oregon to have 99% of district staff trained in equity education.
“We’re really proud of that,” he said. “We also know that that’s the first step, but to have everybody have that conversation and really be centered on making schools welcoming places for every kid and making sure every kid has what they need to succeed is pretty cool.”
School board meetings are currently being held online, but Bogdanove said the hope is that meetings will be in person at some point this school year, with a hybrid option to attend and comment. The next school board meeting will be held virtually at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 12.
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.