Finding opportunity for all Oregon students to succeed
What does it look like when schools center their strategic plan around cultural diversity and community engagement? It looks a lot like the Gervais and Woodburn school districts, places where educators and the community are focused on closing the achievement gap.
Last month, the Oregon Legislature's Joint Committee on Student Success continued our statewide tour with a stop in Marion County schools. Both districts have created opportunities for their students where outsiders might have perceived barriers that were too big to overcome.
The first site we visited was the Gervais Early Learning Center, which provides care for children of teen parents and community members. The program is aided by high school students, who simultaneously earn early childhood education and career and technical education (CTE) credits. The high-schoolers are taught by a former Head Start teacher. Thanks to flexibility with her CTE teaching certification, she was able to transition into teaching the high school program.
Our next stop was Heritage Elementary School in Woodburn, which offers both Spanish and Russian immersion programs. Students spend 80 percent of the day learning in their focus language. In the Russian program, about one-third of the students are native Russian speakers, and the remainder of the students are learning it as a second language. Students can continue to learn languages during middle and high school and, ultimately, graduate with a Seal of Biliteracy. Over and over again, we've seen immersion programs teaching students more than just language; these programs are an effective tool for bridging cultural divides and language barriers in schools and communities.
On the final site visit, legislators toured each of the four high schools that comprise Woodburn High School. Each of the four schools has a focus area: arts and communications; international studies and social justice; wellness, business and sports; and arts, technology and science. Principals emphasized the similarities between the schools. While they each offer specialized programs, they all provide bilingual courses in core competency areas. The school showed community spirit and pride in aiming to make every student successful.
The success we are seeing in Woodburn was emphasized in the recent U.S. News & World Report school rankings, which listed Woodburn Academy of Art, Science and Technology as the top school in the state. The school was recognized for its progress in closing the achievement gap between white middle- and high-income students, and low-income students and students of color.
Our committee spent the lunch hour meeting with leadership to learn how the Woodburn School District has achieved so much success. School leaders cited the development of a strategic plan over 15 years ago and their commitment to stick to the plan. Everything that they've done is focused on a culture of engagement, being good stewards of public resources and community trust, and ensuring all students graduate high school ready for higher education or a career.
In the afternoon, legislators met with parents, teachers, students, business owners and community leaders to listen to their concerns. Marion County educators and parents were heard loud and clear: They need real revenue reform that will help students be successful in the good times, and the bad. More and more often, students are not coming to school ready to learn. Students are experiencing housing instability and homelessness, poverty, bullying and struggles with mental health issues. Many educators and parents expressed a dire need for more adults in their schools — psychologists, career counselors, nurses and public safety officers.
Just like we've heard from students across the state, students in Marion County are struggling with the harsh reality of an economy that is leaving some people behind. Oregonians need their schools to be hubs of consistent support for students and families. We learned a lot from Marion County schools, and next year, it will be our job to ensure every student has the opportunity to succeed.
Sen. Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) and Rep. Barbara Smith Warner (D-Portland) are co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Student Success.