If you build it, they might not come

It's interesting that now that we're spending bajillions of dollars rebuilding Portland public school buildings, enrollments there are declining. The public elementary schools are projecting a 20 percent enrollment decline between 2019-2020 and next year. The public high schools are holding steady for now, according to the school district, but with fewer grammar schoolers in the pipeline, the high schools' enrollment will start sagging soon.

It's hard to figure out exactly how bad the decline is, because the state and the school district are throwing different numbers around. The state says total enrollments at all grade levels in Portland were 48,559 in 2019-2020, 46,924 last year, and 45,123 this year – a 7 percent drop already. The district gives 46,065 in 2019-2020 and 45,898 this year – a drop of less than 1 percent. But the school district also projects that next year's number is going to be 42,453, which would be an 8 percent decrease from 2019-2020.

Whichever set of numbers is true, the message they deliver is pretty clear: Public schools are not drawing like they used to.

Part of it's because people are having fewer kids around here, but part of it is parent choice. Apparently private schools are seeing a boom:

“I need to know that my child is going to be known enough that somebody is going to pick up on signs when they're not okay,” said Apple.

Apple said the situation in public schools is tough and she wishes there were more easily accessible mental health supports for families.

“That coupled with extremely stressed out teachers who are asked to be social workers. They're not trained to be social workers and so they're experiencing trauma of their own, you know,” Apple said.

“I feel like [my children] were indirectly getting traumatized by the trauma.”...

Hart said when his daughter started at Cathedral School, she tested in the 39th percentile for the class. But a couple months later, she retested into the 89th percentile.

“They gave her the attention she needed. The school gave the structure,” said Hart.

You get what you pay for, I guess. The nice facilities the taxpayers are rebuilding for the public schools aren't making up for weak programs within.

Something similar is happening at the state's community colleges. Enrollment there dropped 23 percent in 2020 and didn't rebound in 2021. But when you look at your property tax bill, Portland Community College is a major tapper. They're building spectacular bricks-and-mortar facilities that nobody's going to sit in. PCC lost 21 percent of its students in 2020 and another 2 percent last year.

The schools never stop asking for money, and the voters in Portland never say no. But maybe they ought to stop for a minute and ask a few questions before they mark "yes," as they always do. An inadequate program in a beautiful building is still a crummy school.


  1. The only power we have is to say NO. Like you pointed out, that seems like an almost impossible concept to grasp around here.

  2. Portland Public Schools has always been way behind the demographic trends when it comes to managing space and capacity. In the 1950’s as the baby boom generation was entering school age the district built a number of K-4, K-4 buildings as well as three new high schools and then in the 60 tow more high schools for a total of 14. Today that number is down to 9 and a lot of building used for the lower grade have been closed. I remember reading an article in Willamette Week around 1988 when Portend Public Schools was dealing with dwindling enrollments. At that time PPS was only doing enrollment projections out 1 year.

    The City of Portland is culpable too in driving down enrollments with its policies of supporting high density. I think it’s fair to say that when most young couples that live in the City (i.e. apartments) begin to consider having child they also begin looking at moving to a single family home. Where are most of those? Places like Happy Valley, Beaverton, Tigard and Hillsboro. Frankly, who can blame them. Just look at the facilities in Portland and then compare them to what other districts have to offer. I don’t think that there is any equal comparison. If I was in their position I’d certainly be considering a move to the burbs.

  3. I recall there were also projections of plunging school enrollments made in the early 2000s. Those projections turned out to be wrong.


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