Mapping the road to improvement
In Oregon, about 20% of schools are underachieving, but in East Multnomah County, the proportion of struggling schools is higher, led by the Reynolds School District where 80% of the schools qualify for extra help from the state.
In the Reynolds district, nine of 11 elementary schools are tagged for state support. Two of Reynolds three middle schools and Reynolds High School also are marked for state assistance.
In the Gresham-Barlow School district three elementary schools of the 18 schools in the district are singled out for extra help, or about 17% of district schools. In Centennial, four elementary schools of the 10 district schools are tagged or 40%.
Danna Diaz, who has been the superintendent of the Reynolds School District for 16 months, said "we have a dedicated, loyal and committed staff and we have families that want their students to achieve at the highest levels."
The Reynolds district is pushing to get all its schools and students performing at top levels.
Diaz said new curriculum was purchased in the district in the last several years in both reading and math in elementary schools, teachers and educational assistants added, other measures taken and improvement is on the way.
"We have many schools with bright spots," Diaz said, but added ultimately, "I can only speak to the last 16 months."
The Oregon Department of Education has two categories for schools where students are not performing at grade level. These two classifications, "targeted" and "comprehensive," are based on complex formulas. The schools are measured on regular attenders, academic achievement and growth, ninth graders on track to graduate and other criteria.
A school classified as "targeted" is generally one that has a specific group or groups of students — such as disabled, English language learners, low-income or white students — that are not performing well in one or more areas. It could be a group not reading or writing at grade level based on standardized tests, one that is not coming to school regularly or are not graduating in sufficient numbers, for example.
Schools ranked as needing "comprehensive" support are low-income, so-called Title 1 schools, where students are performing at low levels on standardized tests. It also includes high schools that graduate fewer than two-thirds of their students in four years. Comprehensive schools are in the bottom 5% of all the schools in the state.
Once a school is classified as comprehensive, it stays in that group for three years, even if test scores, attendance and other measures improve enough to warrant a change in classification.
With a change in Federal rules, Oregon has switched from a punitive approach to school improvement, which sometimes called for replacing principals and other drastic measures at underperforming schools, to a supportive, helpful approach with struggling schools.
"We're moving away from labeling schools and calling some failing," said Tim Boyd, director of district and school effectiveness with the Oregon Department of Education. "We're done shaming and blaming."
Instead, "We've moved to more of a model of working with the schools, supporting the schools," Boyd said.
It is an important caveat that many people don't think students or their schools should be evaluated based on standardized tests, which is a big part of these classifications.
Gresham-Barlow Superintendent Katrise Perera often asks adult audiences if they would like to be evaluated by a test taken on one day at work out of years spent working in a job.
As ODE's Boyd said, "schools are far more complex than these reading rates or math results."
Nonetheless, some of the standardized test results in Reynolds are grim. At Salish Ponds Elementary School, considered a comprehensive school, standardized tests show only about one-in-ten, or 11%, of students are doing math at grade level, compared to 43% state wide. At Glenfair Elementary School, also marked comprehensive, 21% of students are reading and writing proficiently, 30 percentage points below state averages.
"We gave the comprehensive and targeted schools more support this year," Diaz said.
The extra help comes in many forms. Reynolds added 23 teachers, five at the high school alone, and 12 educational assistants last year.
Last summer, Reynold's H.B. Lee Middle School piloted a summer reading program where rising sixth graders come to school for six weeks over the break.
Reynolds is working to engage families more in what's going on in their children's schools. For example, recorded calls that go out to families are done in four languages. When there is a meeting or event, "we serve culturally-specific food," said Stephanie Field, Reynolds director of communications.
To make it easier for working parents, Reynolds has online registration at some schools and that is expected to expand to all schools. The district did not have before or after school child care, but added it at five elementary schools in the 2018-19 school year. And this year, schools that don't have child care are transporting students to the schools that do.
The Reynolds District is also in the middle of a comprehensive strategic planning process, which is scheduled to be approved by the board in June.
Reynolds has a high proportion of children who live in poverty, move frequently, are in foster care or do not speak English as their primary language. Statistically, these kids don't do as well as others in school as measured by the standardized tests.
But Diaz adamantly would not blame the district results on the composition of Reynold's student population.
"I don't want to use deficit language and say our children are challenging," Diaz said.
For example, she said, "kids from other countries are very resilient. What they've been through, they know this is the best place for them to be and they will get the best education they possibly can. Our students come with a lot of assets."
Gresham-Barlow has only three targeted schools, and they are flagged because certain groups are not hitting a mark. At East Gresham and Powell Valley elementary schools, for example, special education kids are not improving enough.
"That is one area we did not see the growth we'd like to," said Lisa Riggs, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Gresham-Barlow.
Riggs said the district is using teachers grouped into "professional learning communities" meeting together to bore down and craft specific strategies for helping each struggling student.
"We've also invested in project-based learning," Riggs said, explaining that this hands-on learning works well with some students that learn differently.
For example, at Powell Valley Elementary School fourth graders worked with construction crews last year to design benches for the school. The crews built the benches to the kids' designs and they are now in use at the school.
All three of Gresham-Barlow's targeted schools have literacy nights, when families come to the school for reading-related fun and book giveaways.
Volunteers also work in the Gresham-Barlow schools helping students improve their reading and other skills.
"Those things make a huge difference," said Riggs.
Educators in the school districts are heartened by the funds that will flow to schools as a result of Oregon's Student Success Act, which passed the legislature in 2019. The act is expected to pump $1 billion more into schools each year in Oregon.
"The added funding will support those populations where we have not been able to shrink the achievement gap," Riggs said.
The schools are confident their work will pay off.
Diaz said, "We're doing a lot of good things and we're really excited. We're working really hard and really smart. You will see the fruit of our labor."
In an upcoming issue, we'll do a "deep dive" into Davis Elementary School in the Reynolds School District to see how they have dramatically improved their performance.
Who is on the list?
This is a list of the schools that are classified as "targeted" and "comprehensive" in the four school districts in East Multnomah County. The Corbett School District has no schools on the list.
Reynolds School District
Margaret Scott Elementary
H.B. Lee Middle School
Reynolds High School
Salish Ponds Elementary
Reynolds Middle School
East Gresham Elementary
Powell Valley Elementary
Centennial School District
Powell Butte Elementary
*The Outlook did not include charter schools sponsored by each district because the charters are operated independently from the district, with oversight by the district school board.
The Outlook also did not include the alternative high schools in each district, because these schools, by definition, educate kids that did not thrive in a comprehensive high school.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.