Leaders in Bend-La Pine Schools have work to do when it comes to making students and families feel more comfortable at school.

The district collected about 2,200 survey responses and hosted 36 listening sessions as part of its Excellence and Equity Review, a campaign to hear opinions on the district – particularly those from students and families from underserved groups.

BLS assistant superintendent Lora Nordquist helped lead the first-of-its-kind survey in Oregon’s largest district east of the Cascades.

Bend School District offices

Bend School District offices

Bradley Parks/OPB

“We’ve always looked at test data and outcomes for students and participation in activities, graduation rates, the things that most districts look at,” Nordquist said. “What we realized is we have never done an in-depth process where we sought out the voices of our families, our students, and our staff in terms of what’s working and what’s not working in our district – or what we could improve on.”

The district enlisted community facilitators to help build relationships with groups that have strong connections to families.

Nordquist said she wasn’t surprised by any of the feedback – but she was sad reading about student’s negative experiences.

“I’ve had experiences where teachers weren’t passionate and it made me not want to try,” one student response said.

“The only African-American history we learn about is slavery,” was another student response.

“Some teachers refuse to use my identified pronouns or name and find excuses not to use it,” said another.

There were positive comments – families appreciate broad access to classes and appreciate staff responsiveness.

But some families, particularly people of color and Spanish-speaking families, said they feel unwelcome at school. Other responses called the handling of bullying or racist comments ineffective.

Nordquist said the district needs to do better.

“We have significant numbers of students from underserved populations who say adults hear things and they see things and they don’t do anything about it. We know they heard them, or we know they saw them,” Nordquist said. “[Students] have to know that we’re their allies – we can’t let that continue.”

Staff were also a part of the review. During teacher interviews with the Bend Education Association, teachers overwhelmingly listed class sizes, collaboration, more support staff, and restorative practices as values of high priority.

During listening sessions, staff said school culture – strong relationships and empathy for students – was one of Bend-LaPine’s assets as a district.

But there was also an interest in better connecting with families.

Summarizing all the responses and comments, Nordquist’s team came up with four themes:

  • Relationships matter
  • Belonging and connectedness matter
  • Great teaching matters
  • Cultural diversity and cultural representation and inclusion matter

Nordquist said she’ll make sure all administrators and staff read the results of the review, which was released earlier this month.

She said she’s already seen a small change in herself.

“It’s definitely changed my job,” Nordquist said. “I would say that I have a more powerful sense of urgency than I’ve ever had.”

Going forward, Nordquist said the district will prioritize professional development for staff, create a more inclusive curriculum and encourage family engagement.

And they’ll hope to use funds from the state’s new Student Investment Account (part of the Student Success Act approved by legislators earlier this year) to help make the district better at connecting with and listening to underrepresented communities.