A glimpse into Oregon schools as students return

By Natalie Pate (OPB)
Aug. 30, 2023 12:27 a.m. Updated: Aug. 30, 2023 4:36 a.m.

School staff are working to ensure a smooth and celebratory start to the new school year. Here’s a look inside a few Oregon schools


A group of students at Woodburn’s French Prairie Middle School Monday morning sat clustered at the end of a long cafeteria table. They took turns peeking at their friends’ schedules.

“I have math in the morning,” one student sighed.

“I have, like, science,” laughed another.

“In the morning?!” a third chimed.

Sixth graders were welcomed to French Prairie a day before their older peers with the goal of them adjusting to the new setting first. The same was true for hundreds of ninth graders at Woodburn High School.

Some sixth graders were nervous, quietly voicing concerns that they’d get a mean teacher or that the lessons would be too hard. Others said they were excited about the food they assumed was much better than at their elementary school.

Thousands of Oregon students returned to classrooms this week for the new year.

Portland Public, Woodburn and Beaverton school districts were among the earliest to start. Many others — including Salem-Keizer, Hillsboro, Tigard-Tualatin, Bend-La Pine and Eugene — won’t begin until after Labor Day.

Oregon schools are reopening this year with a host of key issues facing educators: from new literacy requirements and lingering COVID impacts to state funding and staff compensation.

But while these overarching policy questions have dominated legislative hearings and board meetings, school staff are working to ensure the start of the year focuses on the most important part of education — the kids.


Ben Puente greeted students and families outside French Prairie in Woodburn Monday morning, an iced green tea lemonade with five Stevias in hand. He said more than once that he’s “livin’ the dream.”

Puente, known affectionately by the students as “BuBu,” works as a home-to-school liaison for French Prairie.

His job functions are similar to a social worker’s. He makes home visits, talks with families about attendance problems, brings them food and clothing, and assists with any other needs that arise. In short, he helps families and students feel connected and welcome in their school.

“We’re making sure every kid is seen,” he said. “We want to make sure every kid feels like they belong.”

Michelle Shepherd is also passionate about this. As the nutrition services lead at French Prairie, Shepherd ensures the cafeteria serves what’s on the menu each day and that the food is the best quality it can be. She also wants to make sure they’re serving something the kids are going to want to eat “again and again and again.”

Tuesday is everyone’s favorite, pizza and parfaits.

Shepherd said the students are the best part of her job. She loves getting to know them better and “giving them yummy food they can eat.”

“I love being here,” she said. “I love what I do.”

Just up Interstate 5, Portland Public students kicked off the new year too.

Kids were celebrated at Sitton Elementary School in North Portland as they walked into the building Tuesday on a red carpet made of construction paper.

Students sported Marvel and Pokémon backpacks, tie-dye shirts and high pigtails. Balloons and tassels of every color decorated the school’s marquee. Families took first-day photos while upbeat music played from a nearby speaker.

Later at the César Chávez School, a K-8 program in North Portland, older students caught up with their friends. Sneakers squeaked on the polished floor as kids ran and kicked a soccer ball during gym.

First-grade teacher Meghan Gaiero spoke primarily in Spanish to her students in one of Chávez’s dual-language immersion classrooms, showing them how to navigate the room. Everything written in blue is in English and everything in green is in Spanish.

She had the kids practice moving from their desks to assigned seats on a multi-colored floor mat at the front of the room.

As they improved, Gaiero applauded. Her words captured the enthusiasm expressed in chants and cheers at other first-day celebrations this week: “Muy bien. Wow! Increíble!”