Kindergarten students get their wiggles out on the first day of class at Brush College Elementary School on Sept. 15, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

More Salem kindergarteners are heading back into public school classrooms this fall after enrollment fell sharply last year.

As of Thursday morning, there are 2,628 kindergarteners enrolled in Salem-Keizer School District - about 100 more than at the end of last school year, where classes were largely online.

Enrollment numbers as classes began this week remain well below the 2019-20 school year, when 2,961 kindergarteners were attending. School districts across Oregon and the U.S. saw substantial enrollment declines during the pandemic, particularly for kindergarten students.

District leaders said they expect enrollment to continue to grow into October.

At Brush College Elementary School in west Salem, families were invited to come inside the school and get a tour before the start of classes. That gave parents a chance to see where their kids will spend their days as district buildings are closed to visitors in September.

“Every family came in with face coverings on. It was a really positive experience,” principal Jeannine Piscoran said.

Inside the school’s two kindergarten classrooms, energy levels were high Wednesday as teachers led get-to-know-you activities.

Teacher Marisa DeBlase invited students up in pairs to sing a song about their name.

Kindergarten teacher Marisa DeBlase at Brush College Elementary School on Sept. 15, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

As students Marbella Allen and Raeesa Aden approached the front of the room, DeBlase turned to the animal world to help students remember physical distancing.

“Wing space! Wing space! Flap those wings!” DeBlase called, making chicken wings with her arms. The girls mimicked her, moving a few feet further apart.

Across the hall in Angi Levenhagen’s classroom, a mix of kindergarten and first-graders were invited to look in a mirror as Levenhagen walked around the room. Each student declared, “I am…” before filling in an adjective describing themself.

Several students emphasized their speed, causing first-grader Jaxson Geldrich to proclaim, “I’m faster than everyone who said they were fast!”

Teacher Angi Levenhagen asks students to describe themselves with a positive adjective during the first week of kindergarten at Brush College Elementary School on Sept. 15, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

As the class shared, a classroom aide went outside with a student who had taken off his mask to give him a break, returning about five minutes later.

Levenhagen, who’s been teaching for about 20 years, said her mother sewed the bright blue organizers hanging on the back of each student’s chair. It’s one of the small classroom modifications in the era of Covid, allowing each student to have individual supplies rather than a shared box at each table.

In a normal year, Levenhagen said her mother would be helping around the classroom.

“She’s very sad she can’t be here because she’s my official pencil sharpener,” Levenhagen said.

Kindergarten teachers assess students one-on-one before the start of the school year to gauge how many letters, numbers and sounds kids can recognize. It’s typical to see a range of results before the year begins.

Piscoran said the main difference teachers reported this fall wasn’t in reading or writing ability. Instead, kindergarten students struggled more with fine motor skills like holding a pencil or using scissors, likely because fewer had the chance to attend preschool during the pandemic.

Levenhagen’s classroom has a bulletin board on the back wall with a paper where each student writes the numbers and letters they know and draws a self-portrait Some students had written nearly the full alphabet, while others had a few squiggles not quite resembling letters.

Each month, students get a new sheet to update their progress, and at the end of the year, the school’s teachers combine them into a small book so kids and their families can see their progress.

Levenhagen said it can be hard to see student progress in the day-to-day chaos of the classroom. The sheets are a reminder, for her too, that her students are learning.

Kindergarten students play with name tags on their first day at Brush College Elementary School on Sept. 15, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Kindergartener Raeesa Aden dances during a "brain break" on the first day of class at Brush College Elementary School on Sept. 15, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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