Schools cope with societal challenges
Many adults hold idyllic memories of their time in public schools, but superintendents in Beaverton and Hillsboro say schools today are different — and students reflect the divergent society they come from.
"For most people, their perception of school is based on their own experience," Hillsboro's Mike Scott says. "I am here to tell you that over the past 30 to 40 years, kids in schools have changed dramatically.
"Our schools are serving an increasingly diverse population, which means we cannot be satisfied with how we have done things in the past."
Beaverton's Don Grotting says there's another key difference between past and present.
"When I went to school, teachers were there primarily delivering content and instruction," said Grotting, who graduated from Coquille High School in the mid-1970s. "Now all of our educators need to serve the whole child if we are going to get across the graduation line."
They spoke Nov. 29 at a Westside Economic Alliance forum at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Lake Oswego.
The districts have Oregon's third and fourth largest enrollments — Beaverton at 41,000, Hillsboro at 20,000 — and account for 70 percent of public school students in Washington County. The rest are split among Tigard-Tualatin, Forest Grove, Sherwood and Banks.
According to their 2017-18 report cards maintained by the Oregon Department of Education, the majority of their enrollments are minorities.
Non-Hispanic whites account for 48 percent of Beaverton students and 46 percent of Hillsboro students; Hispanics, 37 percent in Hillsboro and 25 percent in Beaverton; Asians, 16 percent in Beaverton and 7 percent in Hillsboro.
In Hillsboro, 6,000 students come from homes where the primary language is other than English. In Beaverton, 100 languages are spoken at home and 5,000 students are English language learners; Grotting says that total excludes 10,000 more who had been in that category.
Many students come from households below the federal poverty level and qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. Beaverton leads Oregon districts with 1,200 students counted as homeless.
Many also have physical and mental disabilities or behavioral problems that follow them into school.
"It is true that kids are not the same as they used to be," Scott said. "But fortunately, neither are the schools that serve them."
According to the same report cards, Beaverton has an on-time high school graduation rate of 86 percent; Hillsboro, 84 percent. Both are above the statewide average of 77 percent.
Scott said Hillsboro is closing the gap with graduation rates of 86 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 80 percent for Hispanics. Closing the gap is also a top priority for Beaverton, which hired Grotting in 2016 after his successful efforts in the top job in the David Douglas and Nyssa districts.
Grotting said race, poverty and disabilities are not the only challenges modern-day schools must tackle.
"When I graduated from high school, you could get out of school and get work at a great living-wage job. That's not the case for these students anymore," he said. "They have to have specialized skills, whether they are going to go on to a four- or two-year college or go into the workforce."
Grotting said credit for progress should be shared.
"One of the things I am most proud of … is the support we get from Washington County voters," he said.
Beaverton district voters approved a $680 million bond in 2014, just before Grotting arrived, and renewed a local-option levy for five years on May 15 with 70 percent of the votes cast. Hillsboro district voters approved a $408 million bond in 2017.
Tigard-Tualatin voters approved a $291 million bond, and Sherwood voters a $247.5 million bond, both in 2016. Tigard-Tualatin voters also renewed a local-option levy for five years on Nov. 6, also by 70 percent.
Gov. Kate Brown's proposed budget promises up to $2 billion in new funding for schools over the next two years — but lawmakers will have to come up with the money.
"We have a unique opportunity in our Legislature this year," Grotting said.
While Oregon has average salaries and top-quadrant benefits, Grotting added, the state ranks third from the bottom in the ratio of adult staff to students in schools.
Before voters approved statewide property tax limits in the 1990s, schools got 70 percent of their operating funds from property taxes and 30 percent from the state income-tax dependent general fund, excluding federal grants. Today that ratio is reversed.
The question-and-answer session focused on some key points:
• Career and technical education: The Oregon Legislature began grants starting in 2011 to encourage districts to re-establish such programs in schools, and voters approved Measure 98 in 2016 to set aside money to boost such programs and reduce dropout rates.
Scott said Hillsboro has increased such programs from 16 to 32 in the past three years with new partnerships with businesses and others.
"These businesses invite kids into their work space, provide job shadows and internships, and teach them what is necessary to be a successful employee," he said.
Grotting said Beaverton students who enroll in at least one such program are graduating from high school at a rate 14 percentage points greater than those who are not enrolled.
• Academic progress: Both say they are focused on reducing absenteeism and providing extra help to students so that they remain on track during ninth grade.
Grotting said if students earn six credits during ninth grade — essentially passing all their classes — their chances of on-time graduation are 90 percent.
"They are playing for keeps then," he said. "Once you get behind, it is so hard for some of those students to catch up," and those chances fall to 50 percent.
• School performance: Hillsboro's Scott said comparisons with other states are tricky, because requirements vary widely, but in Beaverton and Hillsboro, "we are outperforming similar schools elsewhere."
State Rep. Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard, interjected a comment.
Doherty, a retired teacher who has led the House Education Committee for several years, said Oregon has 24 separate graduation requirements — more than in 44 other states.
She said: "I think it's important to say that when you don't have as much money to invest in programs and we have a high poverty rate, we also have a high level of accomplishment we want our students to do — but there's no money to do it."
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