Tangible triumphs: best practices from 12 school districts

OSBA surveyed Oregon schools to learn about innovative programs to feature in the “Change Your Message” edition of Focus on Critical issues.

We learned that all across Oregon, schools are doing hundreds of projects that would increase public support – if communities just knew more about them! Take a look at these success stories and see how your own stories can be told. They’re organized into the four key messages the public wants to hear:

  1. Studies prove that schools do better when parents and other adults are involved in their schools.
  2. Well-educated students are essential to our economic and civic health – teachers and schools can’t do this job on their own.
  3. Students learn best when they have the chance to apply their lessons to real-life problems through internships and other experiences in the community. 
  4. Kids who are active in school are less likely to engage in crime or get in trouble.

Some of these stories are also featured in the video OSBA produced as part of its “Tangible Triumph” workshop. 

KEY MESSAGE ONE: Studies prove that schools do better when parents and other adults are involved in their schools. 

Schools have a long history of working closely with parents, business leaders, and community groups. In addition to building support for public education, these school-community alliances can contribute significantly to improvements in student achievement.

Here are some of the best and brightest: programs and partnerships that are making a real difference in the lives of students, parents, and communities. First, take a look at three districts that are going the extra mile to involve parents and other adults.

Gladstone School District offers parenting series

Each spring, Gladstone School District offers a series of parenting workshops. Sponsored by the Gladstone Education Foundation, these workshops feature top-notch speakers and presentations on topics important to parents of preschool, elementary, and secondary students.

Developed through a partnership with the local ministerial association, the program offers a series of evening lectures on topics ranging from addressing youth risk behaviors to preparing for kindergarten. The 2005 series focused on the needs of preschool and primary school parents and included presentations by the director of a family and youth counseling center, local law enforcement, and agencies that serve preschool-age children.

“We really want to encourage families,” says Bill Stewart, Curriculum Director at Gladstone School District. “Single parents and families who are struggling economically need extra support. But the program is available to every parent in the district and even to those in nearby districts who want to attend.”

Each year’s topic is chosen based on feedback from the previous year. Local churches and school newsletters publicize the event.

“Since we started the program six years ago we have probably impacted more than 500 parents,” Stewart says. “In a district with only three schools, that’s quite a few.”

Keynote speaker Byron Kehler stresses the Love and Logic approach to parenting, a philosophy that focuses on providing natural or logical consequences for misbehavior. After his 2004 presentation on youth risk behaviors, Kehler met with about two dozen high school students to discuss issues and concerns. Their anonymous feedback led to the formation of a community group aimed at addressing underage drinking and substance abuse.

“We don’t believe our students have more drug or alcohol problems than those in other communities,” says Mike Buchanan, vice principal at Kraxberger Middle School. “But we want to do all we can to provide a safe environment and give them healthy alternatives.”

Pioneer School in Lebanon brings in foster grandparents

Lebanon’s Pioneer School serves 490 students in grades K-8. Like others in the Lebanon Community School District, this three-year-old school takes an innovative approach, offering gradeless learning for elementary and middle school students and an open enrollment policy that allows parents to choose the schools their youngsters attend.

School staff members are committed to helping students gain the reading, writing, speaking, and thinking skills they need to be successful in life. They are supported in these efforts by three very important people: Grandma Margaret, Grandma Lois, and Grandpa Curtis.

The three are foster grandparents, older adults who work one on one with children needing extra support. Sponsored by Trillium Family Services, a non-profit organization that operates residential treatment programs for children, these dedicated helpers spend up to 100 hours per month working with kids.

One of Pioneer’s teachers had worked with a foster grandparent at her previous school. When she moved to Pioneer, Grandma Lois came along and brought two of her friends. Foster grandparents work in the library and classrooms, listening to students read and helping them with homework.

“There is a huge benefit for kids,” says Rob Hess, principal of Pioneer School. “The more adults you have around, the better kids will learn. It’s pretty special to have a grandpa or grandma interested in what you are doing. ”

Beaverton’s William Walker Elementary School puts reading first

When Principal Barbara Evans came to William Walker Elementary School three years ago, the school had the second-to-lowest reading scores among all 31 elementary schools in the Beaverton School District. Today, almost 90 percent of third and fifth graders at the school are meeting standards in reading.

This remarkable turnaround is the result of a school-wide commitment to putting reading first. In fact, Walker is a Reading First school, part of a reading improvement program established under the No Child Left Behind Act signed in 2002.

Reading First is a focused nationwide effort to enable all students to become successful early readers. The program helps states and local school districts eliminate reading deficits by establishing high-quality, comprehensive reading instruction in kindergarten through grade three. 

“The majority of Walker students come from families that are struggling to make ends meet,” Evans says. “Many parents work two or more jobs and have little time to help with homework. Sixty-one percent of our students are English Language Learners, speaking 14 different languages.”

To improve reading scores, the school adopted research-based programs that address fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and other factors. Students who struggle with reading receive double and triple doses of reading practice each day and are tested frequently to measure their progress.

Collaboration is key. Grade-level teams, specialists, and instructional assistants meet weekly to review results and identify students who may need additional help. Through a partnership with the University of Oregon, school staff members receive regular training on early reading intervention strategies.

School officials also work closely with parents to make sure children are in scho ol every day and do their homework every night. Students who don’t have a quiet place to work at home go to the school’s “thinking room” to complete their homework.

Additional help comes from 65 community volunteers who take part in Walker’ s Start Making a Reader Today (SMART) program. 

To make progress we need both a dedicated staff and a supportive community,” Evans says. “Fortunately, we have both.”

KEY MESSAGE TWO: Well-educated students are essential to our economic and civic health – teachers and schools can’t do this job on their own.

It takes more than teachers to educate a child. It takes interested parents, supportive citizens, and willing volunteers. Here are some examples of how volunteers are helping to educate Oregon’s students.

Sisters Elementary School meets unique needs

Every school serves a variety of students, from youngsters who struggle with basic skills to those who need an extra challenge to hold their interest. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Sisters Elementary, a Central Oregon school that serves about 400 students in grades K-5. Volunteers play a key role at both ends of the spectrum.

Sisters Elementary School has a strong SMART (Start Making A Reader Today) program to meet the needs of at-risk students in grades K-3. The school was one of the first to introduce this nonprofit program that pairs students and volunteers for regular reading sessions. Launched in 1992, SMART is now active in 31 of Oregon’s 36 counties.

Each year, about 50 parents, community members, and students volunteer for SMART. Each volunteer meets with a youngster twice weekly from October through April.

“SMART helps students learn to read and in the process, learn to like reading,” says Tim Comfort, Sisters Elementary School principal. “SMART also gives parents and community members a chance to see what is happening in our schools and how they can contribute in a meaningful, rewarding way.”

The elementary school has always had a program for Talented and Gifted (TAG) students. Three years ago, a volunteer team was formed to provide even more enrichment activities.

“In the past, our program was primarily led by staff members and was often short of resources,” Comfort says. “Then a group of parents stepped up. They organized leaders for each grade and these leaders met with classroom teachers to decide which programs would be most helpful.”

Parents with special interests and skills volunteered to teach kids who share that interest. Groups of students met—some for the entire academic year—to conduct research, work on projects, complete a report, or compete in a regional contest.

TAG students from Sisters Elementary School entered five science projects in a competition sponsored by Bend Research, a local research and development firm. All five projects won awards.

“The kids had real passion for their projects,” Comfort says. “But the biggest part of it was the TAG parents and community mentors.”

Crescent Valley Math Lab in Corvallis provides individual support

When it comes to mathematics, high school students are all over the map. Some need extra help learning to use basics while others are ready for college-level algebra. The Math Lab at Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis can help those students and all the others in between.

Led by teacher Laurie Jones, the lab is available to students who need to earn math credit as well as those who need some extra help with another math class. The curriculum includes basic math, algebra, and geometry. Students are in the lab for a variety of reasons, according to Jones. Some missed too many classes due to illness; others are on probation or have learning disabilities.

“Most students can make good progress in the lab and some can be shifted back to regular classes,” she says. “We keep the program pretty flexible to meet the students’ needs.”

Part of the Learning Lab, an alternative education program at the school, the Math Lab currently serves 23 students. Volunteers play an important role.

“We have a retired professor who comes in every day to help students,” Jones says. “We also have a mechanical engineer, a parent, and some college students who give an extra day each week in addition to the three days they work for college credit.

“The college students are good role models for the kids,” she says. “Some of our students ha ve challenging life situations, and the college students show them that there are more options than simply going to work after high school.”

Attendance in the Math Lab is great, Jones reports. “We have very few absences. The students find out they don’t hate math, once they learn they can do it.”

Eugene program supports middle school readers

Eugene School District is one of four in Oregon chosen to launch Partnership for Student Success, an initiative of Employers for Educational Excellence (E3). Concerned about the drop in reading scores at eighth and tenth grades, the project’s leadership team decided to focus on a reading program for middle school students.

“When partnership organizers began looking at the needs of our schools they noticed that reading scores were very high at the elementary level but fell off in middle school and high school,” says Larry Brown, Eugene School District Coordinator for the program. “The team decided to intervene at the middle school level to keep reading skills as high as possible.”

Called Literacy Partners, the program teams local businesses with middle schools. Each business partner agrees to provide a $1,000 grant and 15 volunteer mentors. Mentors read with students one hour each week. Business sponsors are recruited through the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce. 

“The schools use the grant to support the literacy program in any way they choose,” Brown says. “Some use the money to help pay a part-time volunteer coordinator; others use it to buy books.”

Specifics of the program vary from school to school. One middle school created a class of 20 students who read below grade level. Volunteer mentors come to the classroom to work with individuals and small groups of students. Another school formed a “book club” for students and volunteers. The club is attracting attention from other students who are asking how they can get involved.

Although data is still coming in, early results are very promising, according to Brown. Students involved in one Literacy Partners program show a 20 percent improvement in reading fluency compared to an improvement of 10 percent among non-participants, and an improvement of 22 percent in comprehension compared to 7 percent among other students.

KEY MESSAGE THREE: Students learn best when they have the chance to apply their lessons to real-life problems through internships and other experiences in the community. 

In schools all across Oregon, students are taking advantage of internships, job shadows, and other programs that allow them to spend time in the workplace. These real-life experiences help young people to make informed choices as they plan their lives and careers. Here are three programs that provide these valuable opportunities.

Corvallis points to pathways

At some point, every high school student wonders: “What will I do after graduation?” For some, going to work is the best choice. Others will earn a certificate or two-year degree, and still others will enroll in a four-year college or university. 

Career pathways give students clear information about what is required to get a job in a particular field—from entry level to senior management. Business people, community organizations, teachers, and colleges work together to define the education and skills needed at each level.

Corvallis School District will pilot two career pathways in the fall of 2005. Corvallis High School is geared up to offer a program in automotive and manufacturing. Crescent Valley High School will focus on engineering and technology.

“We look for every student to take one of three successful transition paths,” says Brian Flannery, District Coordinator of Extended Learning and Professional/Technical Education. “Whether they go directly to work or to a college or university, we want them to be prepared.”

Each student is encouraged to identify a field of interest and set a job goal. Then he or she follows a course of study that supports reaching that goal.

For example, a student may choose a career in the automotive field and decide to become a mechanic. Corvallis High offers an automotive technology program for just that purpose. Another student may have the same interest, but decide to become an automotive designer. That choice will require different courses needed for college admission. Both students are on the automotive career pathway.

“We want to give all students space to grow,” Flannery says. “They can look at a planner and see what they need to take to reach a specific goal. And they can change their mind and pursue a different goal later on.”

The automotive program was recently revitalized and enjoys strong support from local businesses that donate time as mentors, create internships, donate equipment, provide scholarships, and help with fund-raising events. Linn-Benton Community College and Oregon State University are also actively involved.

The programs are being developed through a Perkins Grant from the Oregon Department of Education. The Benton County Foundation provides financial support for students completing internships.

“We have great support from parents, business owners, colleges, and community groups,” Flannery says. “Everyone is working together to make this happen.”

North Marion offers on-campus opportunity

All four schools in the North Marion School District are located together. Surrounded by filbert orchards and hop fields, the Aurora campus is home to 2,000 students in primary, intermediate, middle, and high school. This arrangement has created some unique opportunities for both the youngest and the oldest students on campus.

For the past five years, the primary school and the high school have partnered to offer a child development curriculum that brings high school students into primary school classrooms. The older students spend part of the day in class, learning the basics of child development. Then they walk over to the primary school to put what they’ve learned into practice.

Seventy of the high school’s 550 students participate in the program. There’s plenty for them to do, according to Primary School principal Matthew Wilding.

“In addition to grades K-2, we have a group of 85 preschoolers at the primary school,” he says. “They take part in a program offered by the Willamette Education Service District.”

The preschool serves three groups of students. Some pay tuition; others qualify for the early intervention program; and a third group are the children of migrant workers, many of whom speak only Spanish.

There’s a waiting list for the high school program, and students are screened to make sure they are responsible and motivated. The child development program has been especially successful with students who may struggle with traditional academic subjects.

Through a cooperative agreement with Chemeketa Community College, the high school students can earn college-level credit for their work with the youngsters. 

“There’s good collaboration with the college, the ESD, teachers, parents, other volunteers, and the local community,” Wilding says. “This program is a win for everyone.”

Cottage Grove opens door to non-traditional work

Although an increasing number of women are entering fields traditionally dominated by men, it’s still not easy to break into what were once all-male enclaves.

Young women at Cottage Grove High School are getting an extra boost, thanks to a program funded by the Lane Workforce Partnership. In addition to offering girls-only classes in engineering technology, the program pairs students with successful women mentors and provides paid internships in Lane County businesses.

The engineering tech program is aimed at young women from poverty backgrounds, teen mothers, students with poor attendance records, or those who have limited English skills. In addition to technical training, the students take a companion class designed to help with academics and job readiness.

“In looking at how our students were doing after high school, we found that young women in high-risk categories had very limited opportunities,” says Sue Wickizer, special projects coordinator for South Lane School District. “It wasn’t easy recruiting the first cohort of students. Many expressed doubt that they could be successful in a technical field.

“Once we got that first group to look at some different options, we have had enormous success,” she says. “Now we have students coming in and asking to participate.”

Students in the program are showing improvements in grade point average, attendance, and behavior. Absenteeism, which is often linked to success or failure in school, has dropped dramatically.

Mentors meet with students at least twice a month to discuss school, consider career options and offer encouragement. Many have formed strong bonds with the young women.

“Some mentors were shy at first about meeting with a teenager,” Wickizer says. “We did everything possible to make it a supportive experience, including giving them a handbook and meeting with them regularly.”

The Lane Workforce Partnership grant paid for students to intern three days a week at local firms. In some cases the businesses were so pleased with the students’ work, they paid for an additional two days each week.

“We hope to expand the project so we can also serve young men at risk,” Wickizer says. “ But we will continue to keep them in separate classes. The women do better in a female-only group, at least until they build some confidence.”

KEY MESSAGE FOUR: Kids who are active in school are less likely to engage in crime or get in trouble.

Students who are busy and active are less likely to get into trouble. Before- and after-school programs give kids a chance to do their homework, play games, or get involved in community service. Take a closer look at what schools in Talent , Portland, and Silverton are doing.

Talent students committed to service

Every Wednesday morning, about 100 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders cram into a room for the weekly meeting of the Talent Middle School student leadership program. The group meets before school, and the only requirement is to be on time: anyone not inside by 7:30 a.m misses out.

The meetings are brief but productive. Plans are made for service projects ranging from fund-raisers for Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland to holiday giving trees for local families affected by domestic violence.

“The kids do a lot for other people,” says advisor Judy Casad, secretary/registrar at the school. “They hold skate nights, fun runs, dances, and other events just for the purpose of raising money for those in need.”

Some events are intensely competitive: classes battle one other to see who can raise the most money. Others are pure service: Each fall residents of nearby retirement communities are invited to a special back-to-school night. Club members serve refreshments and provide bingo, crafts, dancing, and other activities for the seniors.

The students make a genuine effort to connect with the community. During “Acts of Kindness” week, they collected pet food, dog biscuits, and collars for the local animal shelter. To show their appreciation to local firefighters, club members cooked breakfast for the crew at Fire District 5.

The middle schoolers are eager to help with almost any project. They wash teachers’ cars duri ng the day, help with fifth-grade orientation, and show adult visitors around the school.

“I like to see kids do things other than academics,” Casad says. “There are a lot of life skills they need to learn and this club gives them a way to do that.”

Portland’s George Middle School unites neighborhood

The purpose of schools is to educate children. But in locations throughout the Portland area, that purpose has expanded to include community outreach, training, recreation, and much more.

These schools are designated “SUN” sites, and are part of the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods initiative, a collaboration of city, county, state, and schools. Launched in 1999, SUN’s mission is to improve the lives of children, their families, and the community by extending the school day and developing schools as community centers.

George Middle School in North Portland was one of the first to become a SUN site. In addition to providing an extended-day program for students, it is a hub for resource referrals and parent education.

The school partners with Metropolitan Family Service, a non-profit agency that serves children and adults, individuals and families. Staff and volunteers work hard to connect with the local community, according to Jane Kellum, SUN site manager at George.

“Partnership is an important part of our goal,” she says. “We want parents, local residents, businesses, and community groups to be a part of what we’re doing.”

Scores of community organizations are involved: The Oregon Council for Hispanic Advancement offers after-school tutoring and mentoring for young Latinos. Self Enhancement, Inc. sponsors activities for African American students. Asian Family Center provides instruction and support to Asian immigrants. 

“We have lots of culturally-specific activities,” Kellum says. “Our student population is very diverse, and these groups offer valuable services.”

In May 2005, the site joined with four others in North Portland to organize the SUN Community Schools ArtWalk. Businesses in the St. Johns neighborhood agreed to hang artwork by George Middle School Students, and visitors were encouraged to stop in for viewing.

The after-school program offers a meal, homework help, sports and recreation, science activities, dance, drumming, and martial arts. This fall, the list will be expanded to include photography and cooking.

“The whole idea is to make our school the center of the community,” Kellum says. “We want to open it up and invite everyone to participate.”

Volunteers from Nike, PGE, and other employers give time and energy to the site. Some of those who teach at the school also lead after-school activities.

SUN schools rely on a diverse funding base: city, county, state, and federal dollars are combined with private donations and non-profit agency resources. “Every year we look for new sources of support,” Kellum says. “Bringing in new partners allows everybody to share the cost.”

Silverton programs promote after-school learning

Two extended-day programs at Eugene Field Elementary School in Silverton are helping at-risk kids to build academic skills and have fun at the same time. The BLAST Club (Busy Learning After School Together) gathers students in grades 1-3 for an hour of after-school reading and math practice four days each week.

The session begins with jokes and riddles, followed by choral reading, poetry, songs, or games. Then the children break into groups where they receive instruction and create posters, puppets, and other projects. Two groups are conducted in Spanish.

Each fall and spring, the BLAST Club sponsors a family night. This spring parents will hear their youngsters in a readers’ theater presentation of fairy tales.

Kinder Camp is an extended-day program for younger students at Field Elementary. At the end of both morning and afternoon kindergarten, groups of students remain at school for extra help in reading readiness and math skills. Heavy emphasis is placed on letter recognition and sound fluency. 

Teacher Mary Bowman shows parents how to help their children at home by encouraging them to read from cereal boxes or count silverware as they set the table.

“We’ve seen some phenomenal results,” she says. “Students who began in October were spelling and reading by February.”

Despite the success of BLAST and Kinder Camp, both programs have been cancelled due to lack of funds.

“Parents, teachers, and administrators think they are great programs, but the money just isn’t there,” says Marina Donohue, BLAST teacher. “We are hoping to bring some of the strategies that worked so well in the after-school programs into the regular classroom.”

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