Gauging student success
The Oregon State Legislature's 14-member Joint Committee on Student Success visited the area Thursday, touring schools in Woodburn and Gervais and meeting with students, community leaders and parents.
The committee is touring schools across the state with the goal of directing funding to improve Oregon's education system, which is the third worst in the United States, with only a 75 percent graduation rate. The committee's findings could lead to legislation to reform education funding and tie funding to measurements of school performance.
Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) and House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) based the Student Success Committee on a bipartisan Oregon committee that developed a $5.3 billion transportation funding plan for the state in 2017.
Woodburn School District's (WSD) high school graduation rate is better than the state average by more than 10 percent, and it's rising. During the 2016-17 school year the district had a high school graduation rate of 88.92, an increase of 5.73 percent from the 2015-16 school year.
Woodburn graduates white and Latino students at the same rate, an accomplishment unmatched by other school districts in the state, where Latino students are expected to graduate at a rate of only 72 percent on average.
After visiting Gervais' pre-K program and touring Heritage Elementary School and Woodburn High School Thursday morning, the legislators held half-hour group discussions with Woodburn middle and high school students.
Representing Woodburn's Success Alternative High School were student council members Armando Lopez, Yosselyn Reyes and Oscar Hernandez-Flores.
The first legislators the students spoke with were Sens. Kathleen Taylor (D- Milwaukie) and Tim Knopp (R- Bend).
"We can talk to administrators and superintendents all the time but we don't get a chance to speak to students," Taylor said.
The two senators asked the students what they thought their school needed, what challenges they faced, and what helped them succeed.
"We'd like more curriculum," Lopez replied.
The students said the curriculum at Success felt limiting, and they only had access to core classes like language arts and math, with limited access to electives and sports. They also noted the school's laptops are also in desperate need of replacement, the students said. Most are damaged, missing keys, slow and need to be plugged in because their batteries are old, they said.
Still, the students were happy with their overall experience at Success and credited the school with helping them graduate and move on to college.
Hernandez-Flores and Lopez said the pace of classes in Woodburn's conventional high school was too fast and they often felt left behind, but at Success, the teachers were able to take time with individual students and prioritize their learning needs.
"They take the time to explain the subject more, they make sure you understand before the class moves on," Hernandez-Flores said.
The students agreed that Success' small class sizes made a big difference in their ability to learn and participate in school.
"We know each other's names, we go on field trips together," Reyes said. "(At Success) it's a community."
After touring campuses and meeting students the committee held a public forum Thursday evening in the French Prairie Middle School gym to hear feedback from parents and the community. About 50 people attended and about a dozen gave feedback to the committee.
Woodburn parent Anthony Veliz told the committee that one of the challenges Woodburn students faced was not having enough advisers. Many students are the first in their families to attend college and have parents who primarily speak Spanish, but the district does not have enough bilingual advisers to meet all their needs, Veliz said.
Janet Lujano, an educator at Washington Elementary, said that students will succeed more if schools are able to extend support programs to their parents as well.
"There are many emotional issues in families which are reflected in children's grades," Lujano said.
She said that many parents in Woodburn are migrants, without access to counseling because they are undocumented and ineligible for public health insurance. She said she hopes that schools can bridge the services gap and improve students' lives by helping their parents.
Woodburn School District Superintendent Chuck Ransom, School Board Chair Linda Reeves and board director Gustavo Gutierrez-Gomez gave opening comments to the committee.
Gutierrez-Gomez said that the success of Woodburn's students was dependent on the community embracing its multicultural demographics.
"We value civic responsibility, quality learning, multilingualism and parent-community partnership," Gutierrez-Gomez said.
Reeves and Ransom described the district's 20-year process of creating a dual language program and following a strategic plan to achieve its current success.
"One of the things we landed on was using an adversity — in language particularly — as an advantage," Ransom said. "Our students graduate with an Oregon diploma, fully proficient in two, sometimes three languages. That's something we set our sights on 20 years ago."
The WHS class of 2018 includes 112 students who received the Oregon Seal of Biliteracy. Seven students graduated with biliteracy awards in 2015, the high school's first year with the program. The number of students receiving the award has increased every year since.
Board members and superintendents have changed in the intervening years since the district's plan was created, but the district stuck to the same path and kept progressing, Reeves said. The key, Reeves said, was setting high expectations and having faith in students' abilities.
"We have had a lot of persistence and patience," Reeves said. "We started with high expectations, believing that every student can and will be successful."