JOHN DAY – The message from Eastern Oregon educators was clear: “One size does not fit all.”
Those words echoed through the testimony last week as Rudy Crew, the state’s education czar, and representatives of the Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB) visited John Day. The stop capped a series of meetings held by the board across the state, and was scheduled at the urging of eastside school officials who felt their rural concerns were not well represented in the board’s original road schedule.
The Nov. 5 meeting packed the library at Grant Union High School, with school administrators and board members coming from Ontario, Burns, Hermiston, Enterprise, Paisley and other eastside communities.
Crew was tapped earlier this year by Gov. John Kitzhaber to lead the state’s educational transformation as his chief education officer.
Attending with him were OEIB members Mark Mulvihill, superintendent of the Intermountain Education Service District in Pendleton; and Johanna Vaandering, a physical education teacher and vice president of the Oregon Education Association; and Rob Saxton, the Tigard-Tualatin superintendent who in July became the first appointed state schools chief.
The OEIB, chaired by the governor, was formed in 2011 to create a seamless system for investing in and delivery of public education in Oregon. The group’s charge is to create an “education investment strategy” for offerings from early childhood through college.
The goals include ensuring that all students earn a high school diploma or equivalent, with 40 percent of them earning post-secondary credentials and 40 percent achieving a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Among other things, the plans call for:
• Achievement compacts between the state and each school district, college and university, setting out targets for student outcomes.
• Shifting some funding from the current education service districts to new “regional student achievement centers,” in effect consolidating the ESDs.
Crew said that a lot of things going on in the schools “are right.” The current process is not about redirecting educators’ efforts, he said, but an effort to “double down” for student success.
He said the state needs to work on the link between home and school to have children better prepared to learn.
He also said the state needs to change the system that allows kids “to limp along” through the grades, “starting in the system as functional illiterates and continuing in the system as functional illiterates.”
Several educators last week said they appreciated the ambitious goals of the revamping, but they also voiced concerns that rural school districts may be harmed rather than helped by reforms aimed at solving urban problems.
They urged the board members to listen to the local communities, the parents and the teachers and support staff in the schools.
“Listen to us before you make a decision that impacts us with a lot of paperwork that we don’t have the staff to do,” said Mike Corley, superintendent of Pine Eagle School District in Halfway.
Speakers urged the board not to overlook the things that rural schools are doing right.
Jim Cernazanu, Grant School District No. 3 board member, said “we have very few kids who don’t make it through.”
He said involvement of the community, with caring adults, keeps kids from slipping through the cracks.
“We don’t want to take something that works well for us, and have it dismantled by a lot of really unnecessary rules,” he said.
Eric Milburn, superintendent of the Annex School District, noted that the “one-size-fits-all achievement compact does not work well for our size school.”
Data measurements and comparisons become meaningless, he noted, when applied to a third grade that has just two students, he said.
“We don’t want to have an asterisk by our name that says ‘insufficient data,’” he said.
Susie Garrison, a John Day teacher, urged the board to talk to teachers. She noted that “you’ve got some amazing ideas, but you’re still out of the classroom, and you need that information from the people who do the work.”
Peggy Murphy, a teacher in Grant County, voiced concerns about the status quo, however, She testified that the four-day school week adopted as a budget measure only shortchanges students, and lengthening the school day doesn’t make up for the loss of continuity of days.
She also said extracurricular activities, while they may have benefits, further impact attendance rates and take money that could be used for academics.
State Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) prompted applause when he quipped, “Nobody thanks me for driving all the way to Salem, so I’m not going to thank you for driving here.”
He added that he does thank them for serving on the board, and he pressed for better understanding of the rural communities. He said the board should ensure that families are involved in the process.
He said the rural areas need the OIEB as a partner, to help spur economic activity “in the woods and in the mines” that will keep both communities and school districts alive.
Educators also urged Crew and the board to support local districts and retain local boards. Several pushed to keep their local ESDs, which provide critical services in many remote school areas.
It’s not enough to have one ESD in Pendleton to serve the entire east side, they said. One speaker also reminded the board that Bend is not considered eastern Oregon.
Crew told the group the intent is not to force unnecessary change.
He noted that the Wall Street Journal recently published a ranking of all states based on certain educational and economic factors.
“Oregon is dead set in the middle,” he said. “You’re right on the bubble, and you’ve got a choice … If you do nothing, your trend line will go down.”
He said the situation begs “at least a conversation.”
“We’re in that conversation now,” Crew said.Read more on bluemountaineagle.com.