School superintendent speaks out on state test results and education in Newberg

Since the Oregon Department of Education released the results of the new Smarter Balanced assessment, our state is buzzing about how our kids performed. Our state Department of Education points out that kids did better than originally predicted. Media talks about the gaps in results and the opt out rates.

I am going to assert that we are getting distracted from what really matters.

A recent Nike publication regarding their Innovation Fund projects gave me yet another reminder of the reality of what Oregonians should be talking about over and over until we figure it out. The publication, like a recent Oregonian article, points out that Oregon is at the bottom of the list. Regardless of whether we are talking about OAKS test, Smarter Balanced Assessments or Common Core, Oregon still has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country.Oct. 7 guest opinion

While Newberg’s graduation rate is higher than the state average, it is below the national average and it is lower than many of our neighboring states. Newberg’s graduation rate over the past five years resembles an EKG, bouncing back and forth between 70 and 78 percent of students graduating in four years. Why?

I have many thoughts in this arena. We can show patterns of attendance issues that factor in. We can see where credit recovery has not been successful. We have found practices that pigeon-hole students into pathways that keep them from on-grade level instruction and getting the skills necessary to graduate. There are so many factors.

While this soap-box commentary has started out rather critical, I also offer that I am very optimistic as we begin the 2015-2016 school year. In year one, Assistant Superintendent Dave Parker and I learned about the Newberg School District. In year two we made changes to begin building infrastructure for change. Year three was about building relationships, establishing expectations for collaboration and sharing a vision.

This year there are tangible changes going into place to address many of our challenges. First is a message that is resonating throughout our district. Thanks to the voices of six of our students about the barriers to success that they face and the conversations about our data and the achievement gaps we see, the message of “All Means All” is taking root in the Newberg School District.

Through this lens we are bringing many of our strategic goals to life. For example, a professional development day in November will give all staff an opportunity to participate in the poverty summit. The goal of this experience is to provide us all with the insight of who our students are, how their lives are impacted by poverty and how we can structure their learning to better support their academic success.

Second, we are actively planning an at-risk summit later this year. We have been talking about putting this together for over a year now. The goal is to bring together everyone in our community who support or have influence on our at-risk students.

We are looking at educators, higher education, judicial and municipal leaders, faith-based leaders, mental health and service organizations.

The hope is to get everyone together and talk about who our kids are — define our demographics; talk about promising practices to break the cycle of poverty and academic failure and ultimately help us to better align all the services being provided to our students and their families.

Besides these layers of support and awareness, I want to also call attention to the 80-plus educators in our system who have committed to pushing their practice, to engaging 21st century tools and skills and to take student engagement to new levels. These staff members are collaborating both in person and virtually to help us all build a new paradigm of thinking.

There is no quick and easy fix to the patterns of achievement in Oregon or Newberg. Building systems takes time; changing practice takes time; building new culture takes time. I am the first person to admit I am not patient and I want to see us breaking the cycle yesterday.

I am incredibly appreciative for the leaders we have in this district who are taking this work on and for the teachers who are committing to the success of all students. I am proud of all that we have moving in the right direction, so that when our data begins to move, it isn’t because of gimmicks or playing with the data, but because we have built real systems that support our kids, long term.

This is how we will solve our graduation rate, both locally and throughout Oregon.

Kym LeBlanc-Esparza is Newberg school superintendent