Board Briefs: Editorials from the MSD Board
A District “On the Move!”
By Jim Horner
September 19, 2018
“This district is on the move!” This was not the first time I had heard that phrase. As a newly minted board member, I had made it my mission to visit every one of the 19 schools in the district. Medford School District (MSD) is large, over 12,000 students (over 14,000 students including charter schools), and on a daily basis probably touches more people than any other organization in the Rogue Valley. The speaker was a teacher at one of the elementary schools, but I had heard the same phrase from principals, administrators, and even classified employees. It was interesting to me to think about why so many seemed to share the same observation.
The Medford School District has served the greater Medford community for many decades. The Rogue Valley had been a center for logging, wood products, and agricultural products such as world class pears. Folks lived a great life, their kids completed school then found jobs in the forest or in processing plants. Academic excellence, although present, was not the highest priority. But things seemed to be changing. When logging became more limited, the primary economic engine of the region no longer could be counted on to provide jobs. The notion of preparing our kids for success took on a whole new meaning. Whether one had received a high school diploma became much more important.
This reality had not escaped the attention of the school board. They realized that MSD’s abysmal graduation rate of 59.6% in 2009-10 could not be accepted, so they drafted a set of “Board Goals” which set out specific improvement targets. These goals, along with a number of other changes, sparked a massive overhaul of the district.
The new Superintendent, Dr. Brian Shumate, had embraced the challenge and enjoined the entire district in the effort. With incredible support from teachers, facility workers, administrators, parents, and community the district has moved its graduation rate above the Oregon average to 78% (maybe even 80% when this year’s numbers become final)! In human terms, this change meant that in the two high schools almost 175 more kids per year were receiving their high school diplomas than before the improvement. Further, student academic assessment scores (Smarter Balanced tests) in English Language Arts, math, and science had also risen above the state averages. No wonder why so many folks were describing MSD as a district “on the move.”
As a board member I was proud to be associated with this progress. It seemed like the new board should accept congratulations and set out to maintain the new status quo. But then I saw an article discussing Oregon’s graduation rate relative to other states. The sobering truth was that Oregon was 47th in the nation! Being above the Oregon average did not mean as much as I had thought. I questioned members of the administration about this and found out that Oregon has more difficult graduation requirements than many other states (24 credits vs 22 credits), but even correcting for that difference, Oregon was near the bottom in the nation.
I chatted with a former school board member and asked his opinion. His answer was simple, “Keep the pedal to the metal!” In other words, although we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go. The superintendent was of a like mind. He humbly described the district’s overall progress as having, “fixed some of the easier problems, but now things are going to get much tougher.” I agreed that progress would probably be more difficult now, but disagreed that the initial overall progress could be described as easy. It was an accomplishment for which he and the district could be proud.
The obvious question was where do we go from here? Certainly we need to move significantly above Oregon averages for our kids to be competitive nationally. Our superintendent had set out a vision of making MSD a “Premier School District.” The initial board goals for graduation rate included reaching a 90% graduation rate by 2020, which if achieved would give MSD the highest graduation rate of any of the largest 20 school districts it Oregon. It seemed like we just needed to do what the previous board member had said, “keep the pedal to the metal.”
But of course, it is not that simple. Our superintendent had much more than graduation rate in mind when he spoke of his “Premier School District” vision. The goals he and the previous board had selected were general academic proficiency, educational equity, and 3rd grade reading performance as well as graduation rate. These goals were not selected at random. Although MSD has multiple measures for each grade and for each school, the board had selected these four superordinate goals to quickly give a good picture of how the district is doing.
The 3rd grade reading objective was selected, because if there were only one skill taught in kindergarten through 3rd grade it should be reading. Many studies show that if children cannot read acceptably by the 3rd grade they will be at a severe disadvantage in subsequent studies and even for the rest of their lives.
The general academic proficiency goal applies to all students but is particularly focused on eighth graders. In order to have a good chance of success in high school they need to be competent in general academic subjects: language skills, math, and science by the time they complete 8th grade. For our high schools to have a chance of meeting ambitious graduation rate goals the freshmen must be well prepared.
The educational equity goal is special as it spans all grades K through 12. The basic notion is that kids joining the district come from all walks of life with dramatically different backgrounds and skill sets. By recognizing those differences, the district can offer special educational assistance, which will enable all kids to maximize their chance of success. Some of the programs offered are federal programs such as Title 1, aimed at assisting students with economic disadvantages. The district offers special education programs (SPED) aimed at helping kids who experience disabilities. About 26% of the district’s students are Hispanic/Latino and for many of them, English is a second language. The district boasts an intensive program to enable these kids to read, speak, and write English. The equity program at MSD is strong, probably a core competency of the district. For example 3rd grade reading scores for MSD economically disadvantaged kids are 9 percentage points above the state of Oregon scores. Hispanic/Latino 3rd grade reading scores are also 9 percentage points above the state of Oregon scores. Many more successful programs help fulfill the equity goal. In general, the district may have already reached “premier” status for equity.
As I continued my school visit, my attention focused for a moment on the marvelous school building. I had visited many schools and now realized that not only had the district revamped its educational protocols but also had done the equivalent with the buildings. I had seen new security/safety measures. I had been on the budget committee for five years before running for the board and knew of the effort to preserve and optimize the incredible capital investment represented by the school buildings. I felt that the investment the public made with the district was being well utilized and maintained. I could not help but note that the general condition of MSD facilities compared well with condition of the buildings of the Silicon Valley high tech firm for whom I had worked.
As my visit concluded, I resolved that the present board’s goal (and my personal mission) should be to keep up the marvelous momentum created by the previous board, the superintendent, and all the employees of the district. This meant continuing to set expectations well above the performance of the state. This meant expecting excellence in all aspects of the educational experience – not just academic- but art, athletics, music, etc. The superintendent’s vision of making MSD a Premier School District, perhaps the educational jewel of Southern Oregon, was right on point. As I continue my term on the board I need to do everything in my power to keep MSD “on the move!”
From Teacher to Board Member
By Jeff Kinsella
One year ago, my name appeared on the May ballot as a candidate for the Medford School Board. Following many weekends of knocking on doors and talking to numerous groups of people, I was elected. I am grateful for my new journey as a retired educator in this new capacity.
I spent over 29 years living and breathing education. Making a difference in the lives of as many students as possible is what drove me to be the best teacher I could be. Now I find myself in a different position, not working directly with students but with the ability to help provide the best education for all Medford students. My passion for our children remains as strong as ever. My role has changed, but my goal remains unchanged.
I have visited many of the Medford schools and feel like a fellow teacher as I observe classrooms and converse with fellow educators. My first inclination is to sit and help a student and build a connection. I hope that that part of me will always remain as I merge my teacher mentality with that of a new board member. I always feel welcomed and the conversations are honest and insightful.
I have been impressed with every school and their unique plans to tackle their unique challenges.
My first year on the school board has been an ongoing learning process as I gain a deeper understanding of my role and find my voice. I continue to work to convey my experience as a teacher and apply it to the many challenges and decisions presented to the board. I am thankful for the mentorship and encouragement from experienced board members. I will continue to learn and grow as a board member. I want to make a difference.
Cynthia Wright and her husband amidst a sea of penguins on their trip abroad
The year 2017 has been marked by the political divisiveness we felt as a country. However, my year ended with an unexpected feeling of unity with the world.
On Nov. 23, my husband and I boarded the ship, Ocean Endeavor, from a dock in the southern-most city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. We were joined by about 170 other people from all over the world, eager to begin a three-week expedition to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island and Antarctica. As we came to know these people, whether while exploring penguin colonies, floating in a zodiac alongside a humpback whale, looking into the round, penetrating eyes of an elephant seal, or “holding on” while crossing the Drake Passage, we found common ground. We all rediscovered our childlike sense of wonder as we experienced raw nature, its fury, charm, beauty, serenity and simplicity. While at sea, we learned together from marine biologists, an ornithologist, a glaciologist, and a polar historian about the mammals, birds, geology and history of the area we were seeing. The ship was our classroom. Then it would pull into a bay, drop anchor, and we were off on an outdoor education experience of a lifetime! All of our differences of age, race, politics, religion and nationality seemed to disappear as each of us donned our yellow “polar expedition” coats, boarded the zodiacs and set off together to explore landscapes and wildlife rarely viewed by human eyes.
Like the passengers of our ship, we all have our differences, but we also share common ground. We all want the youth in our community to experience the joy of learning and to find connections with friends and caring adults along the way. We want each and every child to discover their own value and potential and a hope for a bright future. This year, as we all unite our efforts in this common cause, may we also rediscover some childlike qualities within each of us: the humility to be taught, the willingness to try, the perseverance to try again, the joy of discovery and the vision to dream big!
The challenges before us may seem daunting at times, but as the great polar expedition leader, Ernest Shackleton said, “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”
A board member does not only attend meetings, set policy and balance the budget. My favorite part of serving the community in this role is visiting schools and soaking in some of the magic that happens in Medford on a daily basis.
This past week, while visiting Mrs. Buckley’s first grade class at Oak Grove Elementary, I watched in awe as several first graders taught Director Kinsella, Principal Landon and I a lesson about our brains’ various functions in processing emotion. These FIRST graders used college-level words like amygdala, hippocampus, and orbitofrontal cortex. Oak Grove’s emphasis on mindfulness is just one part of a school-wide commitment to helping kids keep the focus on learning and deal with life’s endless challenges. They have a H.U.G. coordinator (hello, update, and goodbye) to provide positive feedback and reinforcement throughout the day to kids who need it; have fully implemented restorative practices to help kids learn even through discipline; and use a live person, not a robot, to call families when students don’t show up at school.
These are just some of the many shining examples of excellence demonstrated throughout the District in all schools. What I appreciated during my visit to Oak Grove is the commitment and dedication to consistent practices for improving student achievement by all students, staff, and parents alike. Oak Grove is a team pulling in the same direction, and the results speak for themselves with almost 95% attendance and the lowest special education referral rates over the past two years.
As we head into the holidays, a time of family, friends, and reflection of the things that matter most, I would like to express how proud I am of this community and the Medford School District. I know many people are working hard to do what’s best for kids, and for that I am truly grateful.
Happy Holidays and Warmest Regards,
Our board members have a wealth of experience and a variety of backgrounds. We are all impassioned about making a difference for kids. But board members sometime focus too much on the issues that we know a lot about, and consequently we are reaching into a lot of areas that are either operational in nature, or perhaps, not the most impactful regarding our overarching goal of boosting student achievement. We’re working to change that.
The board was recently awarded a grant from the Chalkboard Project, which brought experts in the area of board governance and equity policy to every member of the Medford School Board for training in Roseburg, which also included the Corvallis School District.
Presenter Cathy Mincberg (Center for Reform of School Systems) helped the board see that by narrowing our focus we can achieve more.
With the framework for governance that Cathy provided, we were able to see how to concentrate on those areas where a board can really make a difference: policy changes and, with input from Dr. Shumate and CAO Michelle Zundel who also attended the training, prioritizing one or two strategies from the recently adopted equity policy that will move the needle for kids . These strategies are providing multiple pathways to success in order to meet the needs of our diverse student body; and providing equitable access to high quality curriculum, supports, facilities and educational resources for all students.
Possible actions the board will consider in the coming months to support these strategies include: financing of Career Tech buildings at North and South Medford High Schools to expand options for students interested in HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), carpentry, plumbing and electrical careers; allocating resources for dedicated pathway development; and reviewing board policy on requirements for graduation to reflect expanded credit options such as credit for outside employment, and ‘challenging out’ of specific requirements where students are already proficient in the material.
We believe this in-depth focus will make us more productive as a board and enable us to better support to administration as they pursue these high priority strategies.
Chair, Medford School District Board of Directors