Woodburn offers improvement example for Joint Interim Committee on Student Success
Savin Nikiforoff, an eighth-grader at Valor Middle School in Woodburn, met Rep. Carl Wilson (R-Grants Pass) on Thursday during the Joint Interim Committee on Student Success’ student listening session. Woodburn’s Russian dual-language program helped Nikiforoff, who didn’t know English when he started school. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Woodburn School District’s remarkable improvement drew the Joint Interim Committee on Student Success’ attention for its fifth trip Thursday.
Woodburn raised its graduation rate from 58 percent in 2008-09 to 89 percent in 2016-17, and committee members wanted to know how the district did it.
The bipartisan committee is traveling Oregon to gather ideas for a 2019 legislative plan to adequately fund K-12 public schools while improving Oregon education. Stops so far have included tours of local programs, student listening sessions, community leader roundtables and public meetings. For Woodburn, the committee added a lunch discussion with district leadership.
District representatives pointed to instituting a K-12 dual-language program, increasing student challenges through an International Baccalaureate program and breaking the large high school into four smaller schools. U.S. News & World Report’s 2018 Best High School Awards ranked Woodburn Academy of Art, Science and Technology – one of the four small schools – as the best public high school in Oregon and 24th in the nation.
Woodburn’s dual-language program embraces two of the district’s dominant cultures. More than 80 percent of Woodburn’s students are Latino and about 7 percent are Russian or Ukrainian. Two-thirds of Woodburn students speak little or no English when starting school, yet Woodburn has an 87.4 percent graduation rate among students who at some point took an English-language support class.
“The lesson is we need to celebrate the cultures that live in the community,” said Rep. Teresa Alonso León (D-Woodburn). She is not on the committee but joined in the day’s meetings because the schools are in her district.
Committee Co-chair Barbara Smith Warner (D-Portland) said the committee is adjusting its meeting agendas to move from broader education issues to more specific responses. She praised the Woodburn School District for staying focused on its goals, engaging the community and establishing relationships.
“There isn’t a secret sauce,” she said. “They figured out what the community needed.”
Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Colt Gill attended the leadership lunch. He said he was impressed by Woodburn’s ability to maintain its vision despite throughout changes in superintendents and school board members.
“It says to me that when they developed the plan, they listened to the community and the community has embraced it,” he said.
Committee Co-chair Sen. Arnie Roblan said the Woodburn turnaround is another example of Oregon schools’ initiative and innovation.
“We have starved them for a long time, and they continue to perform,” he said. “There is more money in the system, but the things we expect them to do have grown.”
On Wednesday, the committee met in the Capitol with Edunomics Lab Director Marguerite Roza. The Georgetown University-based education research center focuses on education finance issues. According to Roza’s presentation, Oregon district revenues have grown by 30 percent in the past 10 years while benefit expenditures have grown 69 percent.
During the community leaders roundtable Thursday, Smith Warner tugged at the emerging committee thread of wrap-around services, asking what services the State School Fund should pay for.
McMinnville School District Superintendent Maryalice Russell offered examples of non-academic services that schools now cover, including security, nurses and counselors.
Education leaders again asked for stable and adequate funding to continue successful programs and to stave off cuts related to increasing expenses.
“Our biggest challenge is providing current levels of service because of rising PERS costs,” said Tass Morrison, North Santiam School Board member and OSBA Board president-elect. The average Public Employees Retirement System rate for Oregon school districts for 2019-21 is expected to be double what it was in 2015-17. Morrison also said health care costs are hobbling districts.
Woodburn School Board Member Anthony Medina said his district exemplified what districts can accomplish when trusted to make decisions based on the relationships they build with students, parents and the community.
“The money means something different at every school,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything if the students aren’t successful.”
The committee will travel June 5 to Medford.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA