Sixth, seventh and eight grade students from the Ruch Cross Country team wait for the buss before a meet against Klamath Falls Thursday. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Passion for school pays off in Ruch

When the Medford School Board proposed shuttering Ruch School in 2004 because of dwindling student enrollment and the high cost per pupil, they didn't expect the school of 142 students to draw the kind of community support that swiftly followed.

"I'd never seen so many people gather in one place before or since," says Board member Larry Nicholson, recalling a community forum in November 2004 to weigh the school's future. "People were so determined to save the school. There was a lot of passion."

Several hundred people from the community in the Applegate Valley turned out at that meeting to try to persuade the School Board to keep the school open, says Jacksonville resident Karen Salant, who was active in the effort to save the school.

"The School Board said, 'Come up with a plan,' so we started having community meetings and studied other small schools to see how we could survive," Salant says.

The collective brainstorm resulted in a plan that would rescue Ruch from doom by decreasing its costs and growing its student population.

Families agreed to send their seventh- and eighth-graders to Ruch instead of to McLoughlin Middle School to augment the student count, teachers volunteered to work a four-day week to cut costs, and community members pledged to teach electives and lead other enrichment activities. The school also made an effort to market itself to the Applegate Valley's large homeschool community.

"Ruch (School) is the hub of the Ruch community; it's not just a school," says Jennifer Snelling, Ruch first- and second-grade teacher, explaining residents' drive to save it.

Six years later, that community-hatched plan is still in effect, making Ruch the only K-8 campus in the district and sustaining the school in spite of a new wave of school district budget cuts the past two years.

"The K-8 idea is really what saved it," Nicholson says. "Otherwise, we didn't have enough students out there to justify keeping it open."

In fall 2004, Ruch, then a K-6 campus, had 142 students — a decline of 44 percent since 1998, according to school district officials.

The district was facing a tightening budget because of a districtwide study calculating cost per pupil at each campus.

"Ruch was projected to be in the low 120s over the next couple of years," says Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long. "We were trying to figure out where the enrollment was going trend-wise."

Educating a student at Ruch cost about $6,500, about $1,500 more than what the district received in per-pupil funding from the state at the time, officials calculated.

In all, the district estimated it could save more than $400,000 per year by closing Ruch and busing students to nearby schools in Jacksonville and west Medford.

This fall, 228 students attend Ruch, 57 of whom are seventh- and eighth-graders, according to a district enrollment report. That's a drop of 28 students from last year, but 86 more than 2004. Long said he couldn't immediately provide updated figures on the average cost of educating a Ruch student this year.

Enrollment decreases are a reminder that the school could again be at risk if lean budget times linger.

"Because (the idea to close the school) came up one time, it's probably always in the back of our minds," Snelling says. "We want to make it work, so we try to be the staff that doesn't complain. Our community gives its support, so people want to keep Ruch open."

Nicholson says Ruch taught him that school board decisions can't always boil down to just dollars and cents.

"Schools are community centers," he says. "They're places where many kids get the first and last meal of the day. They're the social network of the neighborhood."

The school still maintains a four-day week, adjourning at 3:30 p.m. instead of 2:30 p.m. as other Medford district schools do to make up for the missed instructional time. This year, the school has Mondays off.

The school's principal, Louis Dix, serves as part-time principal and part-time instructional coach to save on expenses.

Even after six years, community volunteers continue to teach electives and after-school enrichment activities such as art, Spanish, chess, robotics, greenhouse, wood shop and sports.

"The school has huge community support and parental support," Salant says. "When it comes to getting things done, they get it done."

"The community, the parents, the kids are what make Ruch special," Snelling adds. "There is a real freshness, and people are very family-oriented. Second, it's just beautiful here. When I'm jogging on the track and looking out at the hills and the trees, I can't believe I get to be here."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail

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