Crook County School District officials anticipated enrollment to grow this school year. But when an initial count Monday showed 189 new students — a 6.5% increase compared to last October — district officials were pleasantly surprised.

“It blew projections completely out of the water,” said Scott Cooper, Crook County’s school board chair. “Historically, this has never happened to us.”

All four major schools in Prineville — Barnes Butte and Crooked River elementary schools, Crook County Middle School and Crook County High School — saw a bump of at least 15 students compared to enrollment in October, according to data from the school district and the Oregon Department of Education.

Barnes Butte and Crooked River added 15 and 32 students, respectively, while Crook County High School added 64 students. The middle school saw the biggest enrollment increase: 73 new students, or a 12% jump. The school district also added 46 new special education students, according to the district.

The school district’s small, rural schools and alternative schools did not see enrollment increases, according to Crook County data.

Crook County has hired four new teachers and five educational assistants to help handle the growth, the district said.

Crook County High School Principal Michelle Jonas said her school is working to provide more periods of certain classes to keep class sizes reasonable. She added that because Crook County High School was built in the late 1990s to handle larger populations, the school won’t have to worry about using portable classrooms yet.

“Fortunately, before the recession, the high school was larger, so we do have enough space to accommodate everyone,” Jonas said. “It’s just about balancing class sizes.”

District leaders had multiple theories as to why Crook County’s student population grew. Superintendent Sara Johnson said she believes more families are discovering the Prineville region.

“There’s a lot of good things going on in Crook County,” she said. “People ask before moving here, ‘How are the schools, how is the medical care?’ And we think those are good.”

Cooper said multiple factors could be at play, such as Prineville being more affordable than other Central Oregon cities, increased jobs due to Facebook’s data centers and Crook County’s schools having a good reputation, particularly for special education.

Cooper and Johnson said at Monday’s regular school board meeting, the board decided to bring back the district’s long-term facilities committee to take a look at buildings and find creative solutions to accommodate student growth.

Class sizes this year range from 21 students to more than 40 students in middle and high school PE classes, Cooper said.

“There are way too many kids in classes at the middle school and high school,” Cooper said. “Every option is being looked at, with the overall goal being that class sizes have to come down immediately.”

The committee and school board will need to think very carefully about whether to consider expanding an existing school or building a new one. The district’s newest building is the Barnes Butte elementary, completed in 2015.

“Nobody on the board wants to overbuild, then have to maintain an expensive and underutilized space in the future,” he said. “On the other hand, nobody wants to open up next school year and see 8% growth and not be ready for it.”

Crook County’s extreme recent growth stands in contrast to Central Oregon’s two largest school districts. Bend-La Pine Schools’ enrollment rose by 1.5% when compared to October, and the last time the school district had growth of more than 5% was in 1990. Redmond School District is growing even more slowly, posting 0.31% and 0.29% enrollment growth rates in 2019 and 2018, respectively.

Although adjusting for a higher student population will be difficult, Cooper said he was happy that Crook County School District’s enrollment was trending upward.

“The fact that we’re growing enrollment and not declining is a much more preferable problem,” he said. “Other districts have the reverse problem, and that’s way harder to overcome.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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