Students, educators and families are preparing for a historic year in Oregon schools.
The state has invested an unprecedented $10.2 billion in K-12 funding and started a new early literacy initiative backed by parent groups and Gov. Tina Kotek.
And thanks to a bill passed by state lawmakers this spring, Oregon school districts can no longer limit educational time for students with disabilities without their parent or guardian’s consent.
At the same time, the more than 550,000 students across the state are also still dealing with lingering academic, social, emotional and behavioral challenges from COVID-19.
Staff shortages, diminished school meal funding and safety concerns continue in the midst of growing need. Meanwhile, kids are preparing for new technology restrictions affecting devices from their school-issued laptops to their personal cell phones.
Here’s a look at some of these pressing issues facing Oregon schools this year.
Oregon lawmakers this spring approved a record $10.2 billion for the State School Fund. The fund covers daily operations, transportation and other costs for more than 200 school and service districts statewide.
The amount marked $700 million more than current service levels and the most ever put into the fund, as previously reported by OPB. Combined with local property tax revenues, about $15.3 billion was set aside for educating Oregon students for the next two years.
And while school leaders are grateful for that funding, individual districts are already seeing potential cuts ahead.
Superintendent Andrea Castañeda is new to leading Salem-Keizer Public Schools — the second-largest district in the state, serving nearly 40,000 students. She’s already looking at financial issues coming their way in 2024 if the district doesn’t act now.
Salem-Keizer has 2,300 fewer students enrolled since 2019-20. It continues to lose about 400 per year, Castañeda explained. This brings down their revenue since districts are paid on a per-student basis.
In that same time frame, the district has added about 455 full-time-equivalent employees. They’ve also increased staff pay by an average of 14%.
These moves may help address growing student needs since COVID, and it may allow the district to attract and retain highly qualified educators. But it also puts the district in a financial bind.
Salem-Keizer’s projected budget for the 2024-25 school year shows a $50 million gap between the district’s forecasted general fund and what it costs to run the district.
Revenue could go up or down depending on how the district fills open positions and the results of pending union negotiations. About 87% of the district’s budget goes toward salaries and wages.
The gap has been covered in years past by reserves in the district’s general fund. Castañeda described it to the school board Tuesday night like a savings account. But on their current path, their savings could go into the red by about $23 million.
Castañeda said there are some “hard decisions coming.” Starting in the fall, she hopes to engage with the community and make thoughtful cuts in the spring budget process.
Districts nationwide have faced substantial enrollment declines since the height of the pandemic and are grappling with the end of federal COVID relief funds. Oregon’s public schools’ population has seen a 5% decrease since 2019-20.
“I feel really confident that what is going to distinguish Salem-Keizer from the thousands of school districts that are in the exact same situation all across the country is going to be the way that we lean into this problem and work to resolve it collectively,” Castañeda told OPB.
“We’re just going to be really, really intentional, very transparent and really smart about how we do this together.”
Gov. Kotek has made early literacy a focus for her first term.
Oregon’s reading test scores have been declining for years. The latest available data from the state education department shows only 39% of students in the 2021-22 school year were proficient in reading by third grade.
Reading scores are substantially worse for many students of color, students experiencing homelessness, students in foster care and other historically marginalized groups.
Literacy experts often cite the third-grade reading marker as a key indicator of future success. It’s often said — until that age, kids are learning to read. After that, they’re reading to learn.
Research shows low-level readers are less likely to graduate and less likely to earn higher wages. They are also more likely to experience adverse health outcomes, rely on welfare programs and face higher levels of crime.
Oregon leaders want to stop the problem before it begins.
A bipartisan effort this year established a $120 million grant program aimed at transforming the state’s literacy instruction from birth through primary grades via the “Early Literacy Success Initiative.”
Over the next few months, districts and eligible charter schools wishing to secure money will put together their plans for early literacy education and an in-depth inventory of the programs and tools they currently have in place. The deadline to submit applications is Jan. 8.
The focus is on growing achievement levels, improving the state’s standards for reading curriculum and teacher preparation, and ensuring instructional strategies align with the “science of reading” — a decadesold body of research that shows how we learn to read and write.
When signing the bill into law earlier this month, Kotek said it “will take more than one bill, budget line or legislative session to see all the progress we want for our students.”
Still, she said, “This is a major step in the right direction.”
Kotek has also convened a task force focused on how colleges of education prepare future teachers when it comes to literacy.
Lingering COVID effects
Though remote learning, social distancing and mask mandates may be in the past, the longer impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are still lingering in Oregon schools and beyond.
Enrollment is down. Academic achievement still suffers. Mental health and behavioral concerns remain.
“We still don’t know what the full impact of COVID will be on education and us as a society,” said Charlene Williams, the new director of the Oregon Department of Education, in an interview with OPB this summer.
“(When) we all returned to school,” she said, “... students and adults, you know, we showed up differently.”
Some families and staff members opted into remote or hybrid learning environments even after brick-and-mortar schools reopened. Some are still fearful of a possible spike in cases.
“There are places where students are thriving and they have what they need,” Williams said. “But there are places where they are continuing to experience some intense social-emotional, learning needs, and they need to be addressed with care.”
Williams said educators will continue to do what they know works, using best practices to identify those struggling and help them get back on track. As a state leader, she said it will be important the agency listens to educators who are in the schools daily and ensure they are equipped with everything they need to best serve the students.
Castañeda is optimistic, saying many of the kindergarteners preparing to enter Salem-Keizer this fall seem more comfortable socially than those who entered during the height of the pandemic.
She said the focus this year for the district’s youngest students is making sure they’re learning how to be in school and how to be in social settings, while also focusing on basic academic skills. This, she said, also means that schools have behavior specialists and trained instructional assistants ready to help when students need extra support.
Concerning older students, Castañeda said they are seeing more academic gaps and credit deficiencies.
“That’s an unsurprising effect of being out of school for the amount of time that our — and virtually all — students were out of school,” she said. “That’s why we’ve got a super vigilant and proactive approach to tracking students’ progress towards graduation and making sure that if there are any gaps … we know it, and we’re on it.”
Technology and student safety
Remote learning at the start of COVID introduced new conversations about technology: How can we advance, who has access to it and what role does it play in the classroom? Quickly developing artificial intelligence technology is sparking similar debates.
The return to in-person learning also started a range of discussions related to school safety — from the security of young people online to physical safety from fights and bullying, all while school shootings are on the rise.
In many cases, technology and safety go hand in hand.
For example, there’s a new statewide requirement this year for schools or districts to provide electronic communication to parents, guardians and district employees in the case of a relevant safety threat, like a school lockdown.
Also new this year, Portland Public Schools students will be required to wear lanyards with their student IDs at all times while on campus.
District officials said in a message to parents that this is a new policy for all middle and high schools. They described it as a safety measure to help identify and monitor students and visitors.
The district is also now prohibiting social media use on district-issued devices, including student laptops.
Meanwhile, some schools like West Salem High School are adopting new cell phone restrictions. At West, it’s called “No Cell Bell to Bell.”
School officials wrote in a message to West Salem parents that they “have observed cell phone use in classrooms becoming more and more distracting, and students across the country report that the apps on their phones are causing them increasing amounts of stress.
“This new policy would minimize those distractions, allowing students to focus more freely, learn more deeply and connect with their peers and teachers in a more meaningful way,” officials wrote.
Students will be expected to keep their phones turned off or silenced and put completely away during class time. The only time students will be allowed to access their phones is before and after school, during passing periods and during lunch.
When a student needs to use the restroom during class, they will be asked to leave their phone in the classroom and exchange that for a hall pass. Some students object to that rule, saying they want to be able to contact someone at any time in case of an emergency or mental health issue.
Last year, Oregon schools got access to millions of dollars in state and federal funds to help retain and recruit new staff, in response to severe staffing difficulties.
Some of the need appears to have leveled off. Districts have been busy this summer filling critical vacancies. But some gaps remain.
Hillsboro School District still needs about 20 bus drivers, said district spokesperson Beth Graser. But that’s an improvement from this time last year when they still needed 40.
Overall, the district’s classified positions are the most challenging to fill, Graser said. These include special education assistants, custodians and kitchen helpers, in addition to bus drivers. They also have a number of extracurricular coaching positions available.
Salem-Keizer has similar positions to fill.
“Special ed is a challenge nationally, and it is also a challenge here,” Superintendent Castañeda said.
“And then especially math and science (teachers),” she added. “This is a long-time issue — not just for Salem-Keizer, not just since COVID — but for decades.”
Prior to the pandemic, the Oregon Food Bank found that 1 in 11 Oregonians was food insecure, meaning they didn’t have consistent access to nutritious food. As of May this year, that number has jumped to 1 in 5.
Hunger impacts rural, urban and suburban communities throughout the state. Experts believe the dramatic increase in recent years was driven by the ongoing economic fallout of COVID-19 and the rising cost of food and housing.
The Oregon Food Bank estimates more than 114,000 children in Oregon live in households that struggle to afford food.
Schools have long served as a band-aid to this issue, offering free or reduced-price meals for students facing economic hardship in the hopes that it could allow students to stay healthy and focused in the classroom.
Families should still have access to free and reduced-priced meals this year, but the process to get them may be different depending on the school.
When Americans across the country were hit harder during COVID, federal relief money made it possible for every school to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students.
But those funds expired last summer.
Food advocates this year have watched as national proposals sought to expand eligibility for aid, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Students who attend Community Eligible Provision schools — schools or districts in low-income areas — will receive meals at no cost and do not need to submit an application for free or reduced-price meals.
Still, a lot is left to individual states.
Oregon has also been a leader in this arena. As reported by the Oregon Capital Chronicle, about 25% of Oregon schools in the past provided free breakfast and lunch to all students. They did so because they qualified for federal assistance. But thanks to the state’s passage of the Student Success Act in 2019 — which helps subsidize food for students — 55% of schools as of this spring were able to offer those meals.
Oregon lawmakers this spring passed House Bill 5014, allowing the state to allocate more money from the general fund to the Oregon Department of Education to help cover meal costs.
Oregon is also now one of 12 pilot states, starting in the 2023-24 school year, in which students participating in Medicaid will automatically qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.
Advocates expect these efforts to help families this year, even if it doesn’t cover as much as they received at the height of the pandemic.
A new Oregon law will be a game-changer for many children with disabilities.
The ability to access public education with a licensed instructor is a right students have under state and federal laws. But, as previously reported by OPB, some students with disabilities have been quietly removed from school or only offered abbreviated days or online instruction.
Senate Bill 819 combats just that.
The bill, led by Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, passed with bipartisan support earlier this year. In addition to requiring a signature by a parent or guardian before shortening their child’s school day, the new law allows parents to revoke their signature if they change their minds. If they do, the student must be reinstated in school within five days.
The law has teeth, too. The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission now has the option to investigate and sanction school districts and superintendents for violating the law. The Oregon Department of Education can also declare a district is out of compliance and withhold state funds.
Tom Stenson, deputy legal director of Disability Rights Oregon, said one of the root causes of shortened school days in Oregon is a “lack of dedicated, intensive behavioral supports” that will make schools work for students with and without disabilities.
“Passing Senate Bill 819 was a very important step,” he wrote in an email, “but a lot of work remains to make our schools a place where all students receive the reading, math, science, and social-emotional learning they need to reach their full potential.”
Previous reporting by OPB contributed to this story.