In the West Hills neighborhood of Warm Springs, a group of kids, from young elementary students to a recent high school graduate, walk briskly toward an SUV and school bus parked at a dead end.
Warm Springs community liaison Butch David and bus driver Erica Crossan, who work for the local school district, step out and hand the students packets filled with papers, each marked with the student’s name. The pair then place a row of cardboard boxes, filled to the brim with books sorted by reading level, and a couple boxes of T-shirts on the dusty street. The students leaf through the books and T-shirts to make their selections before walking home.
For about two months, this was a biweekly ritual for some students who normally attend the Warm Springs K-8 Academy, particularly those whose families lack an internet connection needed to engage in online distance learning.
Even in normal times, the academy is in a unique position. No local public school in Oregon serves a larger number or a higher percentage of Native American students — nearly 90% of students identify as such. And the school with the second-most Native American students in Oregon is the school the academy feeds into: Madras High.
More than 95% of Warm Springs K-8 Academy students received free or reduced-price lunch. And the school has historically struggled to engage students and prepare them for high school. The school district saw some successes recently — but then the pandemic struck.
The packet drop-offs didn’t reach all families, particularly those who live on the outer reaches of the sprawling Native American reservation in the Central Oregon high desert. Its 27,000 acres, home to nearly 3,000 members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, contain some of the highest poverty rates in Oregon.
Drop-offs were held miles from those families’ homes, and some didn’t have the means or time to come pick up books and packets.
“Maybe they don’t have the transportation to get to the drop-off sites. … It’s not like we’re driving house-to-house,” said Lana Leonard, another of the school district’s Warm Springs community liaisons. “Hopefully they all have internet access. I’m afraid they’re going to fall behind.”
The Jefferson County School District, centered about an hour north of Bend, has for years worked to build strong connections between students and school staff such as teachers, coaches or community liaisons.
Administrators have touted these relationships as a major reason why graduation rates at Madras High School — which serves students from Warm Springs and the small town of Metolius as well as the county seat of Madras — have improved greatly in recent years. Graduation rates for the district’s Native American students in particular rose from 39% to 71% in three years. The statewide graduation rate for Native American students is less than 68%.
But when COVID-19 forced Jefferson County students to learn from their homes, school district leaders worried those connections would erode, particularly for students in Warm Springs, where some families don’t have internet access or even cell service. The Warm Springs Police Department had to hand-deliver worksheet packets to a few families in very remote areas, and that didn’t happen on a regular basis, according to a school district spokesperson.
“This whole crisis, it certainly served to show us that not everybody has equal access,” said third-grade teacher Georgia Boethin. “There’s a definite equity gap, and this made it glaringly evident.”
At least 40% of families in Jefferson County School District don’t have an adequate internet connection, proper electronic devices to access the internet or both, according to a district survey. The school district could not provide specific data for families from Warm Springs.
To keep student-teacher connections strong after the school closed, Warm Springs Academy Principal Bambi Van Dyke — in her first year leading the school of 606 students — ordered teachers to try to have phone conversations with students and families at least twice a week. School counselors also made themselves available remotely, and some teachers set up “office hours” when students could call and ask questions.
Van Dyke and Superintendent Ken Parshall praised staff and families for trying to maintain these relationships, despite the obstacles of no internet connection or rough cell service for some.
“I do believe most of our staff, students, and families did their best through this challenge, but most also realize this is not best for our students and their learning going forward,” Parshall wrote in an email.
Teachers and parents said that, to their surprise, the need for teachers and students to connect in new and more challenging ways during unprecedented time apart actually strengthened relationships with some families. Instructional progress was clearly interrupted but not completely halted in most cases, they said.
Chris Van Atta, a sixth-grade teacher, said she and other teachers created a collaborative system to make sure they were connected to Warm Springs families. If one teacher couldn’t get in touch with a student, perhaps another teacher who taught a younger sibling could reach them, Van Atta said.
Van Atta and her students’ families developed strong bonds through overcoming the challenges of remote schooling, she said. And she said other teachers felt similarly.
“I have to say, it was really interesting to see how the bonds between schools and families grew, Van Atta said.
Some parents of K-8 Academy students praised teachers’ willingness to go above and beyond to keep in touch with students.
Jane Stwyer said her daughter, who is in Georgia Boethin’s third grade class, was crushed when she learned COVID-19 would keep her out of the classroom. The 9-year-old adored Boethin, she said.
But Boethin and other staff members at the school have been persistent in reaching out to help Stwyer’s daughter with both her schoolwork and her sadness, Stwyer said.
“If she needs any help with her summer packet or needs to talk with a counselor about her depression of missing out on school, I can give [Boethin] a call and she’d be glad to help us,” she said. “It’s good to hear my youngest daughter has support.”
Fifth-grader Wesley Charley, by contrast, said he never once heard from his teacher during the spring.
“We don’t get no teacher,” he said.
Warm Springs parent Gunner Herkshan had mixed experiences staying in contact with the teachers of his two children. His daughter’s third-grade teacher consistently checked in with them, he said. The teacher even wrote a postcard to Herkshan’s youngest child, who is only 5 and not a student at the academy yet.
But Herkshan’s family had much less success getting in touch with his son’s sixth-grade teacher — although Herkshan didn’t seem too concerned about how that would impact his son’s schooling.
“She just didn’t reply to the emails. It took a couple weeks to get back to my wife,” Herkshan said of the teacher. But he called his son “a whiz kid.”
“He’s getting good grades anyway,” he said.
Boethin, who left the small eastern Oregon town of John Day last year to teach third grade at the K-8 Academy, had little trouble keeping in touch with her students’ families.
“I can’t be more pleased with the connection I made with families, the way they stepped up to the plate and took this on,” Boethin said.
The school district is still considering whether it can offer some traditional summer school opportunities in August, Parshall said.
Although Warm Springs Academy teachers have been vigilant about calling families this spring, they won’t be required to do so over the summer, said Van Dyke.
“We’re giving them a little break from all of that,” she said. “I think it’s a well-deserved break on both ends.”
Some teachers plan to stay in touch with their former students voluntarily, however. Van Atta said students had already started reaching out to her — including one text from a student reminding the teacher that their birthday was coming soon.
“That’s one of the greatest things about working at Warm Springs: Once you have that bond, you have a friend, a family for life,” Van Atta said.
This story was edited by Betsy Hammond of The Oregonian/OregonLive.
About This Project
The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted education across Oregon. Over the next weeks and months, The Oregonian/OregonLive and Oregon Public Broadcasting are teaming up to examine the impact in a state already struggling with chronic absenteeism and one of the nation’s worst graduation rates. The latest effort — a series on Summer Learning — will involve reporting from reporters at three additional news outlets: The Bulletin, Medford Mail-Tribune and Ontario Argus-Observer. Are you a student, parent or teacher? We’d love to hear from you. Contact reporters Elizabeth Miller and Eder Campuzano.