‘COVID keepers’ will shape Crook County schools
Crook County High School freshman Janasee Sharp transferred this year from a district that was in distance learning. She said it was better to have school “in real life,” where she could do things such as this hands-on robotics class. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Unlike many of their peers around the world, Crook County students came out of this year more enthusiastic about school than ever.
“Now you are way more thankful,” said seventh grader Mattalyn Kline. “You’re glad to be in a classroom and not online.”
The Crook County School District has found a winning formula to help students thrive when so many schools are reporting lost learning and disconnected students. The pandemic’s hard-earned lessons, what the district calls its “COVID keepers,” will reverberate into the future.
Students, parents and staff unfailingly point to Crook County’s early moves to in-person instruction as key. COVID-19 has sharpened everyone’s appreciation for classroom time, a feeling administrators hope to nurture.
“It is a gift,” said Crook County Middle School Principal Kurt Sloper.
The Crook County School District has more than 3,100 students, with three elementary schools, a middle school, a high school and an alternative high in Prineville and two elementary schools outside town. K-3 has had full-time instruction since September. The upper grades went to hybrid in October and full time in January.
School leaders say they haven’t exactly discovered anything new, but this year’s crucible forced them to re-examine every procedure and implement beneficial practices.
“A crisis can scatter people, or it can bring people together,” said Assistant Superintendent Joel Hoff. “We were able to harness that and bring people together.”
Superintendent Sara Johnson said collaboration is now deeply ingrained in the district’s culture.
“The more it drove success, the more we did it,” she said.
School Board Vice Chair Patti Norris is proud of her district’s response.
“We’ve done a lot of changing … things I was always told we couldn’t do – man, did we make it happen,” said Norris, the OSBA Board secretary-treasurer. “We’re actually coming out, I think, better than before in spite of the challenges.”
Administrators say the data back that up, with fewer students failing classes this year than last. Perhaps more surprising, a January YouthTruth student survey showed middle and high schoolers feeling better about their engagement, school culture and belonging than in past years.
Teachers and administrators credit a consistent school board goal of in-person instruction and the flexibility to act to meet students’ academic and social needs.
“Every time the state moved a target, whether tightening or loosening, we would always go with our clear board directive of, ‘If you can do it, do it,’” Johnson said. “We didn’t allow ourselves to say we can’t do that.”
Johnson ramped up her interactions with the board and she said she felt a greater degree of partnership and trust.
Hoff said board support helped alter the district’s mindset.
“We don’t look at barriers,” he said. “We look at cracks in the barriers to see how we can keep going.”
Teachers and administrators agree increased communication has been crucial. The district spun out a web connecting staff, students, administrators, parents, school board members and state officials to inform everyone about the ever-changing landscape. Some practices, such as a popular weekly livestream update from the superintendent, will continue.
The district is also putting more effort into personal-touch communications, from calling families instead of sending letters or emails to greeting children at the door. At the high school, they launched “search and rescue” missions for students who weren’t participating.
“We will never go back to letting the kid decide if they are not engaged,” Johnson said.
Jonny Oelkers, program coordinator for the district’s new Grizzly Mountain HomeLink, called every family last summer he knew that was considering pulling their children from the district because they were unhappy with the schools’ plans.
Grizzly Mountain supports parents who want their children to learn at home with school district resources. The K-8 program appealed to traditional homeschool parents as well as parents unhappy with schools’ COVID-19 protocols.
Eight district teachers support paced personalized education plans, with parents acting as “learning coaches.” The district also held optional in-person activities two days a week for the students.
Grizzly Mountain ended the year with 230 students, about a third of whom had been homeschooled in the past, Oelkers said. The program is expected to continue next year with about the same enrollment. Although some Grizzly Mountain students will return to their regular classrooms, the program is enrolling local children who had been attending out-of-district online charters schools.
Crook County High School Principal Michelle Jonas called this year an unprecedented testing ground for change. Busing requirements forced a later start at the high school. Teachers and students like it so much it will continue next year. The high school will also continue a common teacher prep period that enables scheduling smaller classes.
The high school went from a semester system to a quarter system to accommodate distance learning. Jonas said they learned semesters are too long but quarters are too short. Next year they will try a trimester schedule.
Jonas said every event had to be reimagined for COVID rules, which has led to some happy changes, such as a graduation parade through town.
“It was so well-received, the community will never let it die,” Jonas said.
Some district improvements, such as improved ventilation systems, will go little-noticed, while others will have unpredicted benefits for years.
The high school purchased two movable sport courts so that its basketball, volleyball and wrestling athletes could practice outside when indoor practices were forbidden.
The interlocking, weather-resistant panels of a basketball court are set up in a back corner of the high school’s parking lot now. It has become a popular freshman lunchtime hangout, keeping them from sneaking off campus, administrators say.
The courts offer added capacity for classes, teams and fundraisers. Community members also use the basketball court, one of the few in the city.
Steins Pillar Elementary Principal Jim Bates said the pandemic broke up the usual rhythms and revealed better ways.
Fourth graders Emmett Klann and Bodie Cochran like lunch in the classroom and their teachers supervising recess, changes made for coronavirus reasons.
For the school, the practices will likely continue because they increase learning time and reduce discipline problems. For the boys, it just means they feel more comfortable eating with friends and have a familiar face if they have a problem while playing.
Bates said one of the pandemic’s enduring lessons will be that it is possible to do things differently.
“If there is a need, you can find a way,” Bates said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA