The Future Of Education In Oregon

Dec 30, 2014

Ask the chief education officer for the Oregon Education Investment Board what challenges Oregon’s K-12 education system faces today, and Nancy Golden has many unsettling statistics and professional observations to share. Originally from New York, articulate, and fast-talking, Golden points out that nearly one in four children in Oregon is living in poverty, the graduation rate in Oregon’s high schools is only 68.5 percent (which is the second to last in the nation, and substantially lower than the national average of 78.2 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education), and that for students of color it is less than 60 percent. Many of Oregon’s school children have what Golden calls an “opportunity gap.”  

Nancy Golden's solution is a big picture idea: look at and help the whole child.
Credit Courtesy of Springfield Times

Southern Oregon is no exception. Despite the outward signs of affluence in tourist towns like Ashland and Jacksonville, key economic indicators show that recovery from the recent economic recession in our area lags behind national averages and is among the slowest in the state. According to Census Bureau data, in Jackson County the poverty rate for children under 18 was nearly 27 percent (whereas the state level was 23 percent.) This dovetails with a report from 2011 by the Oregon Community Foundation that found that child poverty rates in all Southern Oregon counties are above the statewide averages, and especially high in Josephine and Lake Counties.

“We have a lot of kids who haven’t had advantages and are without the same skill set as others,” Nancy Golden, who worked as the superintendent of the Springfield public schools for over a decade, explains. “That does not mean that kids aren’t smart, it just means they haven’t had the same opportunities. We don’t talk about the ‘achievement gap,’ we talk about the opportunity gap. These kids are coming to school hungry, they may never have been read to, they have no place to sleep. They have some basic needs that need to be attended to in order for them to learn and close the opportunity gap.”

Poverty. Rising rates of autism, allergies, and other special needs among children in Oregon. Challenges at home. A large and often disenfranchised immigrant population (some 378,000 immigrants live in Oregon, according to the American Immigration Council), which includes the children of itinerant migrant workers. Teachers who must change their practices to accommodate national initiatives (like Common Core State Standards that seek to standardize every student’s knowledge) and at that same time see their class sizes increasing. Shrinking state and local budgets. We have pages of statistics detailing the problems in Oregon’s K-12 educational system.

That’s the bad news.

But we also have good news.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of viable and sustainable solutions to the challenges in Oregon’s K-12 education. From behind-the-scenes boiler repair (it’s not sexy but it’s freeing up thousands of dollars to invest in kids and classrooms instead of squandering in energy costs) to a bold partnership “3 to Ph.D.” (it’s supposed to rhyme) between one of Oregon’s finest private universities and most disadvantaged public schools—things are happening across the state to improve the problems faced in K-12 education.

You need go no farther than a theater production at Ashland High School, where my oldest daughter is a sophomore, to feel encouraged. Their sets are so carefully crafted that they literally rival some I’ve seen on Broadway, and their actors so outstanding (some of the teens have also had the enviable opportunity to work professionally as actors at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), it is hard to believe they are students.

As we head into a new year with new challenges, new hopes—and new national and state imposed guidelines for education—there are people and programs you’ll be inspired to read about.

Want to know what is trending in education as we step into 2015? Read on.

Golden’s Goals

Nancy Golden is especially interested in improving the lives (and test scores) of Oregon children who are at an opportunity disadvantage, but she also wants our schools to respond to students who are more accelerated learners. That’s good news for many parents in southern Oregon whose children are gifted learners needing more challenges. Though she readily admits that her big picture ideas are mostly to effect change at the policy level, Golden has some concrete, on-the-ground suggestions about how to improve Oregon’s schools. As the superintendent of the Springfield schools, she saw good results with project-based instruction. When Khan Academy, an on-line education program in math and science, was used by teachers in the classroom, students who were more advanced could move quickly to self-directed projects and experiments, while students who needed more help could spend class time with the teacher for clarification.

Golden would like to see dramatic improvements in Oregon’s education system, even beyond K-12 education. She points out that a college education is not for everyone in Oregon (and that there are good high-paying jobs for young people who get high school diplomas and certification in fields related to HVAC and computer programming), but the state’s goal is to have at least 40 percent of students receive a college degree or higher, 40 percent receive an associate degree or certificate; and the remaining 20 percent at least graduate from high school with a diploma.

As Oregon’s demographics change, which is something that Golden considers an asset to the state, Golden believes Oregon is going to have to adapt. I think of my son’s 5th grade class at Walker Elementary School in Ashland, Oregon, where nearly 20 percent of the children speak other languages at home. “We can’t teach the way we used to anymore. We’re not a one size fits all, because we are not a one-sized fits all state,” Golden says bluntly. Her solution is a big picture idea: Look at and help the whole child. It’s not just about imparting information, it’s also about making sure that children have enough to eat, a place to sleep, and access to good health care.

Golden points to the Academy of Arts and Academics (nicknamed “A3”) in Springfield as a visionary charter school that really responds to students’ needs by implementing this kind of project-based learning. The results have been impressive, if math-defying: for the second year in a row, A3 has graduated more students than began as freshmen.

Two other school districts have been making marked improvements. The David Douglas School District, which is one of the most diverse and challenging in Portland, has found that having preschools inside the K-12 schools themselves helps prepare young children for kindergarten readiness and keep kids in school. The McMinnville School District has academic scores well above the state averages and has been successfully emphasizing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). What’s McMinnville’s secret? “There’s an extraordinary leader there,” Golden admits. “When you are a school district with 6000 students, you are big enough that you can have a lot of things, small enough that you can bring students together. They have strong leadership and are using evidence-based best programs. They have high expectations for each child and know how to put the systems in place to get there.”

Greening The Schools Behind The Scenes

You won’t be wowed by solar panels or a windmill generating power when you walk into one of the buildings being updated in the Gresham-Barlow School District, located ten miles east of Portland. But Terry Taylor, Director of Facilities, is so busy working with contractors greening the schools that he has no time to talk. The Gresham-Barlow School District has teamed up with McKinstry, a building contractor that does construction and has engineers and designers on staff, to fix an ailing system. For the past three years, quietly and behind the scenes, a team of engineers and designers at McKinstry have been revamping the heating and cooling systems in the Gresham-Barlow School District, ten miles east of Portland. This massive retrofitting project has been funded by the Energy Trust of Oregon, which collects money from Oregon residents’ energy bills.

The most exciting part of retrofitting existing school buildings, according to Tom Konicke, Director of Business Development at McKinstry, is that McKinstry takes a proactive approach, calculating in advance the efficiency savings and guaranteeing that their updates will result in future saving calculated. Not only will they pay the difference if their new system does not result in the projected savings, but they won’t stop working on a project until they’ve improved the energy efficiency to the projected output.

“Most of the work we do is the stuff behind the walls, the things you don’t see,” Konicke says almost apologetically. “It’s about utilizing the resources that they have in the best way possible. A lot of these schools are strapped from a budget perspective and when that has happened for many years, what happens is deferred maintenance of equipment, band-aided together, a teaching environment that is uncomfortable and not up to par with normal standards. It’s instrumental to make these improvements to provide a good learning environment for students.”

Konicke says the savings in energy costs in these old buildings are impressive: enough to pay a year’s salary for a teacher, or to buy 100 textbooks for the kids. “We are reducing the operating cost of a school by reducing energy consumption. And then there is a redeployment of capital towards the things that really matter, like adding a teacher or preserving a music program.”

Public-Private Partnerships: Concordia University And Faubion School District’s 3 to Ph.D.

When LaShawn Lee first took the helm as principal of Faubion School on Rosa Parks Way in Portland, she knew she had a hard task at hand. The school was deemed “failing” by the district, which was converting it from a K-5 school to a K-8; more students were transferring out than transferring in; some kids lived as far as a 90-minute bus ride away; 20 percent of the students were homeless; and the extreme poverty of the students was making it hard for them to learn. But Lee is a woman who likes challenges. Hardworking, open-minded, and passionate about education, Lee was no stranger to poverty-stricken schools, having herself taught in the poorest parts of the Carolinas for twenty years.

Lee had been in the building for less than an hour and a half when a representative from Concordia University’s Department of Education stopped by to welcome her. Concordia, walking distance from Faubion, is a Lutheran university with a mission to serve. Lee says her southern hospitality kicked in and she asked her colleague to sit down. They talked for three hours about Faubion’s immediate needs (art classes) and big picture plans for the next five to ten years.

That fateful conversation was the beginning of a mutually beneficial partnership that started with Concordia Education majors coming to Faubion to teach art and that will culminate in a new School of Education building integrated into Faubion’s building site that will opening in Fall of 2017.

According to Concordia University’s president Charles Schlimpert, who has been instrumental in making this partnership successful, Concordia-Faubion’s relationship is part of a bigger plan at Concordia to help Oregon’s young adults realize their dreams. They call this project, “3 to Ph.D.” The three refers to the first three trimesters of life; the idea being that children need a good foundation, starting in utero, in order to thrive. Concordia’s vision is not necessarily for every child in Oregon to earn a Ph.D., but rather to encourage lifelong learning and inspire students to reach their highest educational goals.

Since Concordia and Faubion teamed up, there have been tangible and practically overnight results. One of the biggest problems Lee faced as a principal was the lack of supervision on the playground. Seventy percent of her discipline referrals came from playground brawls, she says. This was something Concordia students from the Athletic Department could fix. “They taught the kids 400 playground games,” Lee explains. “Now everyone follows the rules. My discipline referrals went from 70 percent to 0! We haven’t had a single one in the last five years.”

Concordia students are on the playground and they are also in the classrooms. Instead of a 30 to 1 student to teacher ratio, the school now has 6 to 1 ratio. Students are no longer leaving for other schools, instead they are clamoring to come to Faubion. “You can find four adults in a classroom with our students: teachers, practicum students from Concordia, student teachers who come for 15 weeks, and Concordia volunteers doing service learning hours,” Lee explains. Pre-K children visit Concordia’s library one day a week. They eagerly look forward to it, clamoring to the teacher, “Is it the day I go to college? Is it my college day?”

The benefits to the university students, 40 percent of whom are the first in their family to go to college, are also palpable. They are becoming more culturally sensitive, getting real-life classroom experience, and having the chance to find viable solutions to the educational problems faced by Oregon children who are trying to thrive despite the opportunity gap. “It is a great thing for the Concordia students,” Madeline Turnock, advisor to the president, points out. “They come to a real-life situation with real-life people. You can’t get that from sitting in a classroom and reading a case study.”

The Concordia-Faubion private-public partnership represents a huge financial investment for the university—Schlimpert says all told it will cost them about $15 million—but he believes the experience his students are getting, the chance for young people to become servant leaders, and the overarching financial and social benefits to the community make the investment more than worthwhile.

When asked if it feels paternalistic to have so much help from Concordia, both Schlimpert and Lee agree that the partnership works both ways. The key is in the good relationship and good communication between the public and the private sectors. “It’s about listening first,” Lee says. “That’s the difference. Concordia did not come in with an agenda. They asked, ‘What can we do for you? What do you need? And how can we help?’ and they’ve never overstepped their boundaries.”

Partnerships In Southern Oregon

Here in our neck of the woods, the School of Education at Southern Oregon University offers a variety of programs designed to meet the needs of students and schools in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties.  Beyond offering traditional student teaching placements for those desiring to become licensed teachers, SOU also places students in innovative and impactful practicum experiences.

Programs like Pirates to Raiders, an initiative for Hispanic students in the Phoenix-Talent School District, fosters a partnership with the students, their families, the school district and Southern Oregon University to support students from 8th grade through completion of High School and ultimately admission at SOU.

SOU education students also work with the Southern Oregon Educational Service District providing outreach to the children of migrant workers, ensuring that this particular population of K-12 students educational needs are met.

Finally, SOU’s Learn & Serve (SOULS) program places hundreds of education majors in public schools throughout the region in individualized experiences designed to meet the needs of students and the schools in which they serve. According to the Chair of SOU’s School of Education, John King, each year, students in Education programs at SOU contribute over 200,000 hours within our region’s public schools.

Technology Can Come Later: Fostering EQ

Allan Adler, 54, runs a completely remote organization. He and his partners meet with clients all over the world—virtually. As someone who helped develop the Cloud and as founder of a management consulting firm that advises companies on how to sell and market their products more effectively, Adler’s life is on the computer. “We help companies like SAP [a European multi-national software corporation] figure out how to transform their businesses in light of these changes in order to help their customers,” Adler explains.

So you would think this 54-year-old entrepreneur would want the same for his children, right?

But he doesn’t. Adler’s oldest son, who began Ashland High School this fall, and his daughter, who is in fifth grade, have both attended Waldorf education their whole lives. Waldorf schools, which follow the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, are places where computers are not used in elementary instruction, television watching and video games at home are actively discouraged, and technology like Smart Boards with access to Edmodo, Skype, ePals, and Wikipedia usually play no part in pedagogy.

Why would a technologically minded parent like Adler want such a non-tech education for his children? Because he thinks his children are being better educated without it. “There are two kinds of intelligence – book and IQ,” Adler explains, “and emotional intelligence, called EQ. You can have all the IQ you want but if your EQ’s not high, you are not going to have a good life. I was confident my kids would get the intellectual education anywhere they went, but I wasn’t sure where they would get the emotional.”

Adler thinks the best way to insure that his children are successful in the world is to help them with emotional maturity and interpersonal skills. “Your level of emotional maturity is at least as important as your level of intellectual maturity,” Adler, who could work anywhere in the world where there is an internet connection and a telephone, moved his family from Arizona specifically so his children could attend the Siskiyou School in Ashland. “Waldorf is all about educating the child inside out. You don’t learn things just with your head, you have to have your head and heart involved. It’s an enormously different approach.”

Instead of test taking and typing skills, the Siskiyou School, like other Waldorf schools, includes handwork (knitting is taught in first grade, crocheting in third, cross stitch in fourth), music, art, outdoor time and movement-based learning (children memorize the countries and capitals in Africa while jumping rope and learn math using rhythm sticks). “It’s not just about shut up and do the work and memorizing stuff,” Adler says, “it’s about being mindful about how children are feeling, how are they doing as people, and who are they.”

Computers are not introduced into the classroom until middle school at the earliest. As much as he values the Siskiyou School’s approach, Adler admits that making such a counter-cultural educational choice isn’t always easy. “Part of me says there is value in exposing children to things early,” he says. “The other side of me says, ‘are you kidding? Do you really think kids are going to fall behind because they don’t use technology in school? That’s insane.’”

Stephen Sendar, a founder of the Siskiyou School, past president of the Board of Directors, and himself a Waldorf parent, believes that limiting access to technology in the classroom is one of the reasons the children at the Siskiyou School thrive: “There are two really important reasons not to use technology at all in the classroom in the early years. One is for the deep happiness of your child: children find deep joy and learning in imaginative play and being unconnected allows them to be free to explore and integrate their activities with all of their senses,” Sendar says. “The second reason is that the time for using technology effectively is later in life, after a foundation for creativity and open-ended thinking is built—then your child can use the technology in service of her mental and emotional faculties to enhance the generation and implementation of original ideas.”

Though the school does not keep statistics, the high school graduation rate from students who attend the K-8 Siskiyou School hovers around 100 percent. Though it seems radically different, much of the school’s approach dovetails with what Nancy Golden, LaShawn Lee, Charles Schlimpert, Tom Konicke, and others are also trying to do: address all of the needs of the child, not just the academic ones.

You may have decided not to have children. Or yours may still be cutting baby teeth and several years away from kindergarten. Or all of your children may have already flown the coop. But a robust education system has a direct impact on every member of the community.

“Ashland is a beacon in Southern Oregon,” says Erika Bare, Assistant Principal at Ashland High School, who is encouraged by how many community volunteers are involved at the school. “We have a tremendous amount of community support to allow us to do all sorts of things, including a thriving arts, theater, and sports program,” Bare says. The some 1,000-student high school has an impressive statistics: In 2013, 83 percent of the students graduated (much higher than the state average) and 80 percent of the students were involved in extracurricular activities. Bare admits that the teachers and administrators suffer from “initiative fatigue,” as they try to keep up with legislative changes that include implementing Common Core, changing from OAKS testing to the Smarter Balanced Assessment, and an exciting new teacher evaluation system. “I am forever hopeful that the coming year will be better than the last,” Bare says. “In order to be in education you have to feel that way. One of the joys we have is that we are able to effect change every day with students. As long as we keep that in front of us, we can do good work.”

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a frequent contributor to the Jefferson Monthly who has four children in four different schools in Ashland: Ashland High School, Ashland Middle School, Walker Elementary School, and Secret Garden (a Waldorf-inspired preschool.) Read more about her at www.JenniferMargulis.net. A version of this article first appeared in Oregon Business Magazine.