A new tax on Oregon businesses will bring in millions of dollars for Oregon schools — an estimated $500 million will be divided up among the state’s 197 school districts. But first, school leaders have to figure out how to spend that money.
To do that, districts have spent the last month engaging community members, families and students. Each district has taken different approaches to engaging the community. Some collected input through surveys, and others had targeted community meetings.
As stated in the law, the millions allotted to school districts through the Student Investment Account in the Student Success Act must be spent to serve two purposes — to meet students' mental health or behavioral health needs, or to increase academic achievements for five specific student groups.
Those groups are low-income students, students with disabilities, students learning English, students experiencing homelessness or in foster care, and students of color.
Oregon’s school districts have to go through a grant process to get these funds. The grants are not competitive, but state officials are required to ensure districts spend the money in a targeted way, as laid out in the law.
District spending must be focused on four categories: instructional time, health and safety, reducing class size, and creating a well-rounded education.
Some school districts used those categories to guide the conversation at community meetings. At a meeting hosted by the David Douglas School District, community members and staff cycled through each category and discussed ways the district could help students through those categories.
Administrators in the Salem-Keizer School District took a different approach. Two community members — one a parent and the other with the Oregon Alcohol and Drug Commission and local NAACP — built a task force of staff and community members to figure out school district needs from those perspectives. From there, the committee will seek community input at events this month.
From meetings at several schools around the Willamette Valley, a few themes emerge.
One spending focus for school districts is on reducing class size. Parents, community members and teachers see an opportunity to use additional money from the state to hire more staff — including teachers, instructional assistants, counselors and social workers. In Beaverton, there was interest in increasing the number of librarians.
But the conversation about also includes who those staffers are. Across school districts, community members expressed the need for more teachers and counselors of color.
More training and professional development for teachers
For almost every student group, community members — including some teachers — suggested more training for teachers. Community members across a number of districts talked about the need to train teachers in social emotional learning — a growing priority in education circles to improve student well-being. A number of school communities also discussed increased more professional development for teachers to better support students with disabilities and students learning English.
Being more culturally responsive
At a recent meeting, members of Salem-Keizer’s Student Investment Account Task Force discussed what the district is doing — and not doing — for specific student groups, including Native American students and emerging bilingual students.
Teachers and community members talked about having more mentors for students of color, more leadership development and more equitable discipline practices.
The task force discussed the needs of Pacific Islander students and how to take advantage of the increased state funding to provide cultural training for all staff and address the need for a better understanding of history and differences.
In Beaverton, the district's multilingual department reached out to nine specific language groups, including Vietnamese-, Japanese- and Spanish-speaking communities. From the language groups, families were interested in healthy lunch menus and sensitivity to other cultures.
More student and family supports
Parents and students want help in the classroom and outside of it. A couple of students at a Portland meeting mentioned wanting help getting organized. Parents in Beaverton asked for after-school activities and homework help for students.
In Salem-Keizer, task force members talked about the need to help homeless students feel connected to school by building relationships to teachers and other staff. For emerging bilingual students, task force members talked about more language supports.
In addition to teacher training opportunities in social emotional learning, there was also an interest in social emotional supports for students.
Partnerships with local organizations
Bringing in outside organizations to supplement school capacity was a repeated theme, especially according to district conversations with families in high need. PPS feedback from families, community members and staff all listed “coordination of services with external partners/providers” as a top priority for Student Success Act funds.
At a community meeting in the David Douglas School District, parents and community members talked about better connections with local businesses for students to go on field trips related to career interests.
The Student Success Act requires districts to solicit input from the communities targeted in the bill. And there have been some efforts to do that.
In some districts, including Portland and Beaverton, staff made one-on-one phone calls to hear from homeless students and their families, or students in foster care. The David Douglas School District had meetings for Spanish-, Somali- and Russian-speaking families, for example. Other districts had meetings for parents of students with disabilities.
In addition to school districts, teachers unions in Portland and Beaverton hosted events. The Portland Association of Teachers hosted an event specifically for black parents.
But there were some concerns about whether the targeted student groups were included in the process.
Students weren't well represented at community meetings. The few students at events came with a board member, a local organization, or because their parents were attending. They offered specific suggestions, such as a student at Portland's Roosevelt High, who said he’d like to see more black teachers. A David Douglas High School student said she wanted smaller classes, especially for advanced courses.
A couple of districts said they plan to host student focus groups.
Some districts are still seeking community engagement. Salem-Keizer will host two community forums this month. The Beaverton Education Association will host another community event later this month.
Districts have to submit Continuous Improvement Plans to the state by Dec. 6. Those plans will include details from the community engagement sessions and plans for the Student Success Act process going forward.
There will be opportunities for more community input before districts submit their grant applications to the state in the spring.