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Education Enrollment:
Harper is booming

Data show rural online academy has largest growth over last year

Elementary numbers decline in county, state, due to pandemic

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Data show rural online academy has largest growth over last year

Harper Advanced Auto students completed several personal projects through distance learning while in-person classes were on hold due to COVID-19. Projects included two engine rebuilds by Corbin Palmer and Ryan Talbot. Eric Osornio worked on suspension and electrical repairs, and Sierra Dobson worked on electrical diagnostics. Instructor Wade Johnson mentored the students on their own time. Pictured in the back row, from left, are Talbot and Osornio; in the front, from left, are Palmer, Johnson and Dobson.


Enrollment numbers for the 2020-21 school year show schools in Malheur County as pretty near the mark for the prior enrollment year which finished amidst the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some schools saw enrollment dip or rise by anywhere from two to 43 students, according to data in the Oregon Department of Education’s 2020-21 Fall Membership Report released on Feb. 4. Overall, the data shows enrollment declines at all school districts except one, and points to a 3.7% drop in statewide enrollment, with more than 1/4 of that in kindergarten, a trend noted in most states across the country.

Although enrollment is a key factor in distributing school funding, the funding level is fixed and the funding distribution formula is flexible enough to accommodate this decline without significantly impacting dollars needed to support Oregon’s students, ODE noted in a news release with its report. 


While it’s not clear if the decline in local elementary schools was in kindergarten, the most notable factor among all of these districts is that the elementary schools saw the sharpest decline in enrollment. Data for individual schools show Vale Elementary had the highest loss of numbers at 56, followed by Alameda Elementary in Ontario at 43. As a whole, however, Ontario’s five elementary schools lost 117 students.

Numbers were not provided for Four Rivers Charter School.

The biggest uptick noted in the county was in the Harper School District: Harper Charter School added 61 students to its enrollment numbers for 2020-21. Also noteworthy was Ontario High School has 34 more students enrolled in the current year than it did in 2019-20, but other schools in the district lost some numbers.

The largest decline in enrollment numbers in the county was in the Vale School District, which had 87 fewer students than the previous year. Next were Ontario at 69, Adrian at 38, Nyssa at 32 and Jordan Valley at 7.

The newspaper reached out to the leaders of the two school districts on the far ends of the gain-and-loss spectrum to learn more about those numbers.


Harper School District Superintendent Ron Talbot said that the enrollment jump from 115 in the 2020-21 school year to 176 in the current year was in the Harper Online Academy, an online schooling option that was started by the district three years ago. Unlike a virtual charter school which can take unlimited enrollment, charter schools are limited on the amount of students that can attend virtually. For Harper, that number is 107 for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

As of Friday, there were 93 students in in the online academy, with 112 in the building, Talbot said — that’s 29 more students enrolled than the state’s fall count, which counts enrollment on Oct. 1.

Prior to COVID, Talbot said there were only about 18 to 20 students in the online school; however now there are about four times more — and they have come from far and wide. In addition to students from various places throughout the county, including Jordan Valley, there are students attending from Union, Halfway, Burns, La Grande and the Pine Eagle area, according to Talbot.

He credits the online growth to a combination of COVID, people already trending toward more online education and word of mouth.

“It was already set up and already functioning when the pandemic hit, so it was a good avenue for quite a few families,” Talbot said.

He said a lot of the online students he has now were attending the Silvies River Charter School in Harney County, but decided to go to Harper for testing as it was closer.

As to increasing capacity for the online course, Talbot said he could, “but we’re kind of at a point of whether to cap or continue to grow and expand the school. At this point and time, I’m wanting to see if students go back to their districts as they open up.”

As for the pandemic and school closures, they were able to supplement the state’s allotted two-hour in-person class time with distance learning. An example of successful adaptation he gave was the auto program, and how students were still able to do some bigger projects, including rebuilding pickup trucks.

“It was a bright spot in a time with so much lost,” Talbot said. “I am very proud of their accomplishments and hard work.”

Along with reopening for full-time in-person instruction on Jan. 11, the charter school reopened its dorms, all of which was approved by local and state health authorities.

“We’re following that plan,” he said. “The kids have really needed it and they’ve been happy here and our attendance has been great. The kids just want to be back.”


Vale School District’s decline equates to about 10% of it’s student population compared to last year’s totals, according to Superintendent Alisha McBride.

A large graduating class of 76 in 2020 was one contributing factor, she said. However, in line with the state and national trend, there were only 46 kindergarteners enrolled, which dropped numbers immediately by 30.

“Distance learning really prompted families to transition to homeschooling,” McBride said. “We had a number of elementary level [students] transition to homeschool option, and some families that chose to move to another state where children would be able to attend in-school instruction.”

The superintendent said she was pleased to note those numbers did increase slightly once schools opened back up in mid-January for full-time in-person instruction.

“It’s certainly not back to pre-COVID numbers, especially at the elementary levels,” she said. “But enrollment has increased.”

In-person classes at the high school were recently paused for two weeks “out of an abundance of caution,” however, there was an early return option, which more than 100 students were able to do so. The remainder continued distance learning through last week and are expected to return for full in-person this week.

The transition back to full-day was not as challenging as was expected, McBride said, crediting the district’s transportation department with “a phenomenal job of organizing routes and contacting families.”

“I am so grateful,” she said.

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