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Commentary: A turning point for Oregon schools

by Gladstone Superintendent Bob Stewart

You hear it every day:  Oregon’s graduation rate should be much higher. Our students should be achieving more in math, reading, writing, and science.  Those things are absolutely true. What will it take to reach our goal, a 100% graduation rate?

The Oregonian recently published a series of articles including a comparative analysis that ranks all states’ school performance and education spending.  By their calculation, Oregon ranks 38th in student performance and 39th in education funding.

The problem
How do we move Oregon schools from 38th to number one? First, we need to analyze the problem.  Why do students drop out? Back in 2010, the Gladstone school district did some research. We surveyed and interviewed 52 dropouts to ask them why they did not finish school.  What we discovered is how complicated life is for students living on the edge.

It’s a long list: foster care, neglect, domestic abuse, mental illness, and poverty. Divorced or separated parents, learning disabilities, parent incarceration, homelessness, and family members battling addiction.  Most dropouts surveyed were coping with more than one of these challenges.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, over 26% of Oregonians experienced three or more of these Adverse Childhood Experiences. We cannot simply wish away the resulting impacts to Oregon’s education, health, mental health, and workforce. We need to take action.

How to raise the graduation rate
This is not rocket science. To provide early intervention for at-risk students, we need more adults in schools. Lately, that need has not been met. In fact, at the worst point in the Great Recession, many Oregon school districts laid off up to 25% of their staff. Seven years later — despite an economy on the upswing — we have yet to add back most of the positions we lost. 

To build a school system with a 100% graduation rate, we need more staff than we had before. Teachers. Counselors. Social workers. Truancy officers. Psychologists. Intervention specialists. Summer school staff. Tutors. Mentors. We need adults to serve the full spectrum of student needs through smaller class sizes, more course options, and more support programs.

Getting there will require a partnership with the Oregon Legislature. Only with their help can Oregon make the needed investment to reach that goal.  More adults in our schools would make a life-changing difference to struggling students in a state where half of our children live in poverty, 13 percent are challenged by learning disabilities, 10 percent are English learners, and 35 percent are disadvantaged minorities.  Where 26 percent of students have suffered three or more childhood traumas.

The will to change
Will Oregon voters and taxpayers support investment in schools? The answer is yes.

Oregonians value K-12 education more than any other state service. Year after year, residents identify school funding and education quality as our state’s top two needs. In fact, a statewide survey showed that 81 percentwould be willing to support increased K-12 funding through either higher taxes or reallocation of funds from other areas.

Despite our overwhelming public support for education, in the past 10 years, the portion of state funds spent on K-12 schools has actually decreased from 44 percent to just 39 percent today.

But what if the legislature simply decided to provide K-12 funding equal to the national average? That 15% increase would cost Oregon about $2 billion in the next biennium.  In my school district, that funding level would provide full spectrum support from 50 more highly trained staffers, from teachers and counselors to learning specialists and more. To put that in perspective, this would be a 50 percent increase over our current staffing for these positions.

It’s time
Coincidentally, $2 billion is also the gap between Oregon’s current school funding, and what is needed to implement Oregon’s Quality Education Model [QEM]. Published in 1999, the QEM was created by a collaboration of state business leaders, legislators, educators, and parents.  It lays out a data-driven blueprint to provide every student in our state with an education founded on best practices.

For 16 years, Oregon has ignored the QEM. Setting outcome-based goals for education, has not been part of determining our state education budget.  As a result, 28% of Oregon students do not graduate in four years.

Oregon is now at a turning point. Making our schools the nation’s best means we need more adults in schools — not just school staff, but social service and health care agencies, non-profits, and volunteers. For 16 years, we’ve had a plan in our back pocket with the power to transform schools.  But we need to fund it. The only question remaining is whether the Oregon legislature has the will.