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Lake Oswego School District takes steps to be a more inclusive, diverse place in 2019

PMG FILE PHOTO  - Dr. Lora de la Cruz took over as superintendent in the summer of 2019. The end of a year provides time for reflecting on all the changes the past year has brought. LOSD had a big year in 2019. Changes were made to district administration, graduation rates rose and bond projects made progress. Likewise, LOSD took steps to be a more diverse and inclusive place for each and every child, often with students at the helm, leading the way. The Review rounded up 10 stories of pivotal moments in LOSD in 2019.

Grad rates continue to rise

Lake Oswego School District graduation rates continue to outpace the rest of the state, the Oregon Department of Education reported in January, with 93.05 percent of students graduating with their four-year cohort in 2017-18.PMG FILE PHOTO - John Wallin celebrates with supporters on election night. Wallin was reelected to Position 5 on the Lake Oswego School Board.

That was significantly higher than the overall state graduation rate of 78.68 percent and an improvement over the 2016-17 rate of 92.45 percent. Four years ago, the LOSD's graduation rate stood at 90.02 percent.

A potent example of that steady growth: Lake Oswego High School's graduation rate rose from 90.40 in 2016-17 to 92.35 percent in the latest report, an improvement that Principal Rollin Dickinson attributed to "having high expectations for our students."

At Lakeridge High School, the graduation rate actually decreased year over year, from 95.09 percent in 2016-17 to 94.18 percent this year. But despite that drop, Principal Desiree Fisher said she was very pleased with the results.

"We are thrilled that our students have excelled at achieving this graduation rate. It represents our high-quality teaching, learning and leadership across Lakeridge," Fisher said.

Over the past three years, Lake Oswego's on-track-to-graduate numbers have moved from 92 percent to 99 percent, according to the district.

There is still room for improvement in the district, however. Despite high overall graduation rates, the ODE report showed some student groups are lagging behind. Only 86.96 percent of students who are members of "underserved" races and ethnicities graduated in 2018, for example, compared to 93.55 percent of students who are not considered "underserved."

Economically disadvantaged students also need help. Only 76.92 percent of students in this category graduated, while the rate for non-economically disadvantaged students was 95.44 percent. Students with disabilities also came in well below the district average, with 78.46 percent graduating.

Students share experiences with racism

High school students seized a unique opportunity in February to share their experiences with racism, telling a standing-room-only crowd at the Lake Oswego United Church of Christ that "it's hard to feel like this town is my own."

The comments came during the monthly meeting of Respond to Racism, a grassroots organization dedicated to fostering a communitywide discussion about diversity, equity and inclusion. The group has focused on racist incidents in the Lake Oswego School District before, but this was the first gathering where student voices took center stage.

All seven students on the panel were active in equity work in the district; most were students of color.

The conversation centered around personal stories about racism that each of the panelists had either seen or experienced. The group included Lakeridge junior Mya Gordon, LOHS junior Anna-Marie Guenther, Lakeridge senior Max Herrera, Lakeridge junior Evan Melendez, LOHS senior Anushka Nair, LOHS sophomore Janelle Pranger and LOHS junior Penelope Spurr.

Pranger, who is African American, said racism is something that she experiences every day.

"I'm adopted. I have white parents, and most of my extended family is white," Pranger said. "I've been told by people that I'm the whitest black person they know. I don't necessarily appreciate that."

Students on the panel said that most of the racism they've experienced in school has been microaggressions and covert, rather than overt. "They're small things that slowly pick away at you as a person, and make you feel like you don't belong in this town," Gordon said.

Ground broken for new Lakeridge Middle School

The groundbreaking ceremony for the new Lakeridge Middle School was in April. District officials, community leaders, students and other community members gathered at the site to celebrate the start of construction of the school, which is scheduled to be completed summer 2020.PMG FILE PHOTO  - The school district broke ground on the new Lakeridge Middle School in April.

"We are here to celebrate the next generation of middle schoolers on this site," said then-Superintendent Michael Musick.

Design and construction of the new Lakeridge Middle School is being funded by the $187 million school bond passed by voters in May 2017. The estimated cost of the school is $68.2 million.

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Musick acknowledged the many people who have contributed to the long process of passing the school bond and developing plans for the new school.

Nearly every person who played a key role in the journey was at the ceremony, including current and former members of the Lake Oswego School Board.

Former school board member Sarah Howell was the chair of the school board in the spring of 2017, and helped usher in the bond.

Students and teachers have made sacrifices as the site was prepared for construction, including holding classes in portable structures outside the school.

Holocaust education bill becomes law

Thanks to the hard work of a Lakeridge High School student and a local Holocaust survivor, Holocaust and genocide education will be mandated in the state of Oregon at the start of the 2020-21 school year.COURTESY PHOTO - Claire Sarnowski, pictured here during a trip to Washington D.C., was instrumental in pushing for a new Holocaust education bill that was signed into law this year.

Senate Bill 664 will require school districts across Oregon to provide instruction about the Holocaust and genocide in social studies classes. It was unanimously passed in a final vote by legislators and approved by Gov. Kate Brown in May.

The driving force behind the bill was Sarnowski, who was inspired by a dear friend, late Holocaust survivor and Hillsboro resident Alter Wiener.

Sarnowski first heard Wiener's story in the fourth grade, and it changed her life. "It was so moving and interesting to me to hear his personal account," she said. "I knew about what happened in the Holocaust, but I didn't truly understand until I got to hear a survivor speak."

Wiener's father was murdered by German invaders when he was only 13 years old. Wiener himself was taken to a forced labor camp at 15, he said. He eventually spent time in five different concentration camps; when his last camp was liberated in 1945, he was 18 years old and weighed just 80 pounds. He was one of only two surviving members of his entire extended family.

Sarnowski was inspired by Wiener and his story of survival and perseverance during the Holocaust, and reached out to state Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, for help in crafting the legislation.

17 Concurrent Resolution 21 was also passed, memorializing the life of Alter Wiener.

Holocaust education bill becomes law

Lake Oswego Junior High students had a unique day of school one Friday in May. Teachers and staff at the school organized Better Together Day, a day full of presentations and workshops by community members, parents and students grounded in culture, diversity, the arts, social issues and advocacy.

Teachers and staff at Lake Oswego Junior High have spent the last school year working together to make the school a more inclusive and equitable community, and Better Together Day is one result of their efforts.

Students and parents were responsible for coming up with their own topics, and were paired with teachers to help them design their lessons to best reach their audience. The teachers were also present during the sessions to support the presenter, and the lessons aligned with the "culturally responsive focus we have been implementing at LOJ," according to Mills.

The driving force behind Better Together Day was the school's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, made up of LOJ teachers and staff.

De la Cruz arrives as superintendent, new board members elected

After the district announced its decision to hire her in late 2018, Lora de la Cruz took over as the superintendent of the Lake Oswego School District in the summer of 2019.

She replaced Interim Superintendent Michael Musick, bringing 26 years of educational leadership experience to the district. In her most recent role before arriving at LOSD, she supervised a group of 10 principals and instructional coaches, coordinators and support personnel for Aurora Public Schools, a highly diverse district outside Denver, Colorado that serves 40,000 students and 5,000 staff members.

De la Cruz said she was eager to take on her new position because the LOSD's values and mission were consistent with her personal and professional history.

In Aurora, de la Cruz coordinated the Gifted and Talented program, the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support program (similar to the LOSD's Response to Intervention, which provides individual attention to keep struggling students on track to graduate), social-emotional support initiatives, Special Education services and programs that work with culturally and linguistically diverse learners.

De la Cruz's personal history has influenced her understanding of the importance of educational opportunities for all. Her parents met at the border of Texas and Mexico, and her mother raised five children in America after the death of her father. Her mother spoke limited English and had only a high school diploma from Mexico, but dreamed of more.

Westridge opens new building

There had been construction at every school in the Lake Oswego School District throughout the summer, but no school received a more comprehensive remodel than Westridge Elementary.

Construction at Westridge was funded by the $187 million school bond passed by voters in May 2017 to address deferred maintenance issues that had accumulated over the years.

Last summer, Westridge received a major interior and exterior renovation and a small addition to the building, which was to be used by students in the DELTA student services program. Other construction included seismic retrofitting — the gym was upgraded to level 4 seismic capabilities, meaning it could be used immediately as a place to gather for shelter after an earthquake — and a brand new roof for the school building.

Crews worked from the inside of the building out, to allow for new seismic reinforcement, upgraded bathrooms, and a brand new library and school entrance.

In addition to the work done to remediate mold and water damage, there were structural supports that needed repairs.

Addressing dyslexia in the LOSD

The Lake Oswego School District announced it would ramp up its efforts to address literacy and improve the identification and education of students with dyslexia and other reading differences.

Superintendent Lora de la Cruz first presented the idea at a September school board meeting, in advance of Dyslexia Awareness Month in October. "During the listening portion of my entry plan, I had opportunities to engage with many parents and community members," she said. De la Cruz had attended meetings of many district committees, including the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Accountability Committee and the Student Services Parent Accountability Committee (SSPAC), as well as back to school nights and PTO meetings. "A great area of need is of our students that are not being served, especially when it comes to literacy," de la Cruz told the school board. "Students with these learning needs haven't been met, and this lands heavy on my heart."

De la Cruz said she specifically heard from one parent that she feels like her child has been left behind by the district. "One parent said that the Lake Oswego School District is not the best district for all students. I take that very seriously," she said. "We need to have 100% of our students having their needs met."

De la Cruz directed her staff to form a task force on dyslexia, which was be led by Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Schiele. The objective was to create a dyslexia handbook: "A clear instructional pathway for students with dyslexia and similar struggles," de la Cruz said.

Schiele told the Review that 25 instructors were to receive the first round of professional learning in October.

The professional learning plan was informed by the Orton Gillingham Approach, "a direct, explicit, multi-sensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach literacy when reading, writing, and spelling does not come easily to individuals, such as those with dyslexia," according to the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators.

Decoding disability

PMG FILE PHOTO  - Kids learned how to decode disabilities at a Welcome to My World event this fall. The Lake Oswego School District is filled with a diverse pool of talented and unique students, some of who happen to be living with a disability. Welcome to my World (W2MW), an annual program presented by the district's Student Services Parent Advisory Committee, encouraged students to explore and understand their peers with disabilities in a deeper way.

W2MW cycles through all district elementary schools throughout the year, with the goal of helping neurotypical students understand what it's like to live with a disability through hands-on activities. In October, W2MW came to Westridge Elementary.

During W2MW, students pass through stations that mimic the experiences of different disabilities and learning challenges including dyslexia, Sensory Processing Disorder, fine motor skill impairment and more.

Empathy is a central focus of W2MW, while sympathy is avoided.

Community rallies to support sex ed

Over 40 community members attended the Dec. 16 Lake Oswego School Board meeting to give public comment supporting the district's adoption of a new sex education curriculum — in anticipation of a parents' rights group's opposition of the curriculum.

In 2018, the district approved the "Great Body Shop" curriculum as well as a support curriculum and an updated program exemption policy. The Great Body Shop is a comprehensive health education curriculum that is aligned with state and national standards for health education.

In 2015, National Health Education Standards were revised for the first time since 1995, with one major adjustment being the creation of a chapter on equity and access for students. In response, Oregon Department of Education adopted new health standards for the state in 2016 and the Great Body Shop curriculum was adopted by Lake Oswego to comply with those standards.

Public comments from students past and present, teachers, parents and community members expressed allyship with the LGBTQ+ community and support of a curriculum that acknowledges and validates them.

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