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Woodburn School District's new Superintendent Oscar Gilson came on board July 1

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Woodburn School Superintendent Oscar Gilson discusses the challenges of educating students during a pandemic.Closures implemented earlier this year to stem the spread of COVID-19 affected workplaces across the board, but perhaps none more than schools.

COVID-19 closures kicked in last March, just days after Woodburn School District hired Oscar Moreno Gilson as its next superintendent. On July 1, the new district leader hit the ground running.COURTESY OF RICARDO VASQUEZ - Oscar Moreno Gilson, Woodburn Independent - News Woodburn School District announced the hiring of a new superintendent on Thursday Gilson named as WSD superintendent

Beginning a new job invariably comes with challenges, but the ones emerging this year serve up a complicated array of obstacles. Gilson recognized that from the onset and thinks the district will be in a strong position to meet the new demands.

Within two short weeks Gilson already has met one-on-one with a wide range of players inside and out of the district: teachers, staff, administrators, union representatives, district board members, leaders from Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noreste (PCUN) and Woodburn Police Chief Jim Ferraris.

The superintendent had been following developments within the district and community throughout the months since his hiring, and he attended Woodburn's Black Lives Matter rally held earlier in June.

"People come to Woodburn because they want to be here," Gilson said, describing it as a community of values and diversity. "I see a community of caring, loving and thinking of others ... a community that loves its multicultural (complexion)."

Therein lies the strength be believes will allow the district, and the community, to prevail in the pandemic battle.

Personal battles

Gilson didn't rise into the administrative ranks of education via conventional means; in fact, his story could be regarded as unorthodox. He was 14 years old when his family moved to the United States from Mexico. Living in Cornelius, he attended Forest Grove High School, and by his own description graduated as an illiterate.

"I was essentially illiterate in English and Spanish. I may have had about third- or fourth-grade level understanding of Spanish," he said.

Gilson and a friend joined the Navy. But after taking the entry test, he and his buddy were assigned different boot camps and duties.PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Oscar Moreno Gilson, right, had many family members with him as he was formerly announced as the Woodburn School District superintendent during a special meeting Thursday, March 5. Those included his mother, Mago, left, wife Kierey, sister Luzi, sons Oscar and Edgar, brother in law Juanro, sister in law Shelli and their son Ben., Woodburn Independent - News Woodburn School District announced the hiring of a new superintendent on Thursday Gilson named as WSD superintendent

Gilson recalls being stationed in San Diego and flatly declining to sign up for the matching funds offered for post-service schooling, figuring he would never use it. By the time he was discharged, he had nonetheless built up some funding through the GI Bill, so he enrolled in Portland Community College, at the Rock Creek campus, where he essentially learned to read and write.

"I was still very, very insecure," he recalled of the time.

As far as determining a direction in life, Gilson reflected on his time spent overseas in the Navy. He wasn't much of a carouser, so while at port in places like Japan he took part in programs where sailors would help orphanages and similar places by doing some painting and other tasks to spruce things up.

"You know, I was good working with the kids," he told his mom. "Maybe I should go into teaching?"

That was not much of a stretch, as Gilson's immediate and extended family is chock full of educators at all levels, in the U.S. and Mexico.

In fact, Gilson's mother, Mago, and brother, Eddy, were all graduating from their respective schools at the same time in 1998, and the trio was lauded as examples of the tenacious American spirit by President Bill Clinton during his State of the Union address.

Gilson went on to receive a master's degree in education from Portland State University in 2000, where he also earned a continuing administrator license a decade later. He has an ESOL bilingual endorsement from Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling. His subsequent work saw him serve the Portland School District as a K-8 principal and middle college director, and he also served as a principal in the Corvallis School District.

More recently, Gilson was the Area Senior Director of Comprehensive Support and Improvement in Portland Public Schools before taking on the WSD leadership post.

Gilson's large, extended family attended the WSD board meeting when his hiring was announced, and Gilson's son quipped that 22 years ago his dad had been pumping gas, and now he's leading a district of educators.

Looking ahead

With that backdrop Gilson puts his tools to work in Woodburn during one of the most difficult periods of adjustment the school district has experienced.

In addition to working on formulating a reentry plan for the school year, the new superintendent has been working at building relationships, finding out what has been working in the district and what areas can be improved, along with creating a vision for where the district wants to be five years and 10 years down the road.

When Gilson was hired, WSD board chair Linda Reeves applauded his positive interactions with the community and his holistic approach toward leadership.

"I don't need people to feel they have to adjust to me," Gilson said. "I've seen too much of that (leadership style), and it doesn't work."

The challenges

Gilson has assembled educators and administrators into several groups, each working on models for reentry. Scenarios included extended distance learning, in-person learning or a mix.

During the July school board meeting, an outline of a preferred hybrid mode for the school year was presented, in which the vision was to have two specified student cohorts come to school two days while practicing distance learning the rest of the week. Wednesday would be a distance-learning day for both groups as well as a prep day for teachers.

At about the same time as the board meeting, the Woodburn Education Association announced that teachers union members voted 81.3% to 18.7%, against any form of in-person instruction for the coming fall, citing safety concerns.

Gilson, too, is keen to safety as a priority, and he's also attuned to changes that arise at the state level in terms of directives that frequently shift with changing pandemic circumstances. Just the second week into his superintendent position, Oregon Health Authority reports showed record numbers of positive and presumptive cases of COVID-19 registering throughout the state.

That spike will likely shift directives from the state level, and entities such as school districts will need to shift with it.

"Our leadership has been as proactive as possible, (affording) flexibility to fit plans to your district," Gilson said.

But the fit is difficult as circumstances shift. Gilson said the effectiveness of distance learning has not seen across-the-board success as families with limited means appear to find the approach challenging. Moreover, there also are child-care elements, school lunches, questions about the status of the district's school resource officer program, and a variety of other peripherals that need to be weighed in, all within the overarching objective: "We need to figure out how to continue to educate our kids."

To that end Gilson sticks with the concept of it requiring a village to raise the youth.

"I don't have all the answers," he said. "I will look for the answers; and those answers will come from the people right here in Woodburn."

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