Addressing learning needs

Siuslaw School District seeks community input on Student Success Act — Part II

Feb. 15, 2020 — “There’s a lot of unanswered questions that this will bring up, and that’s what we’re tasked with,” said Siuslaw School District’s Special Programs Director Lisa Utz. “Digging down deeper into the data, what can we do with some of this money? It’s all about connections and making those partnerships.”

Utz was speaking at a community forum for how the district will spend $1.14 million dollars that will be given to the district through the Student Success Act (SSA). The meetings are a requirement for the funds, meant to get community input in how schools are ultimately shaped.

The first two meetings in January were sparsely attended, though the district hopes that an upcoming meeting on Thursday, Feb. 20, at 6 p.m., held at the Florence Events Center, will bring in more people.

Over the past few months, the Siuslaw News spoke with multiple district officials, administrators, board members, teachers and the public regarding the funding. While Siuslaw School District does have higher than state average graduation and completion rates, as described in Wednesday’s edition, there are still multiple challenges that the district faces, from mandatory testing, cultural and economic differences, scheduling conflicts, problems with chronic absenteeism and getting students interested in classes.

The challenges are as disparate as the solutions that could help to fix them.

Party of the money from SSA is focused toward underserved populations.

District Superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak said, “Statewide, you have ethnic students and students with disabilities graduating and a lower rate. If the system is serving everyone equally, then all numbers would be the same across the board. So if you’re really going to improve education in Oregon, putting money toward the 80 percent really doesn’t do any good. You have to bring the bottom scores up. It’s not that those kids don’t have the capacity, it’s that their needs haven’t been adequately addressed. That’s what this is about.”

For the underserved populations, “economically disadvantaged” makes up the majority of Siuslaw students, which Elementary Principal Mike Harklerode put at anywhere from 65 to 71 percent district wide. This cohort tracks above state averages, with an on-track graduation rate of 78.9 percent, compared to the states rate of 71.9 percent.

As for ethnic minority populations, Grzeskowiak pointed out that this cohort also does well, comparatively.

“When you’re a non-native English speaker, some think that they’re going to struggle and not graduate,” he said. “The opposite is actually true. Our bilingual students graduate at a higher rate than our average population. If they stick with it for the first part, they do better in the long run. English students who immerse themselves in a foreign language, their graduation rate pops up too.”

In fact, English learners at Siuslaw pass at a rate of 66.7 percent, better than the state rate of 53.6 percent. Hispanic/Latino bests the state as well, with 82.5 percent compared to 73.7 percent.

The same holds true for testing, with Hispanic/Latino students passing the state math test in 11th grade at 35.1 percent, compared to the state’s 19.3 percent. As for the “underserved race or ethnicity” category, Siuslaw comes in at a whopping 40 percent compared to the state average of 18.9 percent.

If there’s one difficult spot, it’s students with disabilities. Siuslaw only has a 6.3 percent three-year passing rate, but the state sits at an equally low 6.7 percent.

Much of this has to do with the testing itself, Utz explained.

“You may have a student with a disability that does not test well,” she said. “They have to test in a smaller learning environment. But if you were to give that kid a hands-on way to show their knowledge, they can do it. So when you’re looking at some of the scores in here, it’s always difficult to factor our different learning style. The test is one learning style. So, is it more important for us to teach to the test, or a more hands on, application approach?”

“Teaching to the test” has been a difficult balancing act for all schools throughout the country, especially Oregon.

“You’re not supposed to be preparing for the statewide assessment test, and Oregon is the only state in the union that uses its testing as a requirement for graduation,” Grzeskowiak said. “Ten other states take the same test we do, but we’re the only ones that use that as a benchmark for graduation. If it’s supposed to be a marker of growth and development, use it as that. But don’t make it more than that.”

Even if the teachers wanted to teach to the test, they couldn’t — the questions are closely guarded by the state.

But if schools don’t do well on state testing, there can be consequences. Even though schools can’t lose funding because of low scores (funding is based on enrollment), they can lose control.

“There are schools that are consistently underperforming,” Harklerode said. “In those cases, the state will come in with greater degrees of influence over what curriculum is used and what the teaching requirements are going to be. Schools can lose a lot of local autonomy when they’re consistently underperforming. That’s a place to avoid. It’s not fun to be a teacher or a student in those schools.”

Utz added, “It’s not as community responsive. We are way different than Eugene or Portland. How we raise our kids is different.”

Then there’s the time it takes to actually take the tests, which is time consuming.

“A mental itch that I’ve always wanted to scratch is that fifth grade falls apart at the end of the year, you can set your clocks to it,” Harklerode said. “It’s largely because they’re ready for middle school, they’re ready for more autonomy. They’re done with this class, this group of kids, this teacher all day, every day. I’ve looked at switching teachers, but it’s tough with testing smack dab at the end of the year. It’s such a big chuck on time, and you don’t want to upset the apple cart right when we’re asking them to sit down with their best efforts. That’s a structure of the school year that plays against us.”

Ten percent of a student’s time in a school year is devoted just to taking required testing, most of which takes place in May. That means students are dedicating 15 of out of 17 school days in May to taking tests, just as their thoughts turn to summer vacation.

How does Siuslaw raise its state testing scores for underserved populations like students with disabilities?

A definitive answer is unknown, though CTE options can help. Right now, kids can earn a math credit through woodshop, “And then at the entry level science at high school, we’re going into pattern physical science. It’s all application math,” Grzeskowiak said.

Harklerode believed that could be a key to bringing up test scores.

“Kids being able to earn cross pollinated credits, where you can get a math credit in a construction class, or you can get a reading credit in another class,” he said. “It’s going to be that kind of creativity, and frankly that’s what I think this money is for, which is those kind of creative solutions where not everything is so singularly tracked.”

But one of the problems with getting kids to take these classes is overcoming the stigma surrounding them. Despite the numbers showing that high school classes like woodshop actually help college students graduate, there’s a sense that it’s not important for college.

“We have to do away with the myth that college is the gateway to everything,” Grzeskowiak said.

That’s not to say that the district discounts college all together. In 2018, the College Credit Now classes earned almost 1,200 college credit hours for high school students.

“If every credit is about $250, do the math,” Siuslaw High School Principal Kerri Tatum said. “That’s a huge step up. I keep going back to people I have personal experience with. My daughter is graduating in three years from Oregon State, with a pre-optometry degree, because of the classes we have at Siuslaw High School. She got 90 credits from Siuslaw that counted toward her degree. She started as a sophomore at OSU.”

But even preparing kids for college is difficult, considering the ever-changing job outlook of the world.

“Every job we expected to have when we were in school is out the door now,” Utz said. “How can you predict what skills a kid is going to need in math if you don’t know the jobs that there will be? Every day, you hear some new entrepreneurial job.”

Grzeskowiak agreed, saying, “We’re trying to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet.”

There’s also cultural differences when it comes to college, particularly for underserved populations.

“We’re training kids to go off to college, but that’s the antithesis of some cultures,” Grzeskowiak said. “They’re training kids to come back in and support their community. ‘Why am I being trained in a system that’s telling me to leave?’ We’re preparing kids to go out, but not necessarily to come back.”

For many of those students, absenteeism can be persistent, which is one of the greatest difficulties facing the district.

Over the past three years, a large percentage of district students have suffered from chronic absenteeism, missing 10 percent or more of the total number of school days in a year.

Only 70.5 percent of Siuslaw students attended school 90 percent of the days or more, compared to the state average of 76.4. The lower numbers were across the board — economically disadvantaged and underserved race or ethnicity.

For children K-6, students miss school because of their parents.

“Parents think, ‘Well there’s no test today, so it’s not an important day,’” Grzeskowiak said. “That kid’s going to have to get caught up some time, and if you’re expecting the teacher to catch them up, the other 25 kids are going to have to be put on hold. There’s a bit of a selfishness factor to it, because you being gone is now impeding everyone else. It’s a weird dynamic. Is it important? Yeah, we’re building on the curriculum. But is there a test? No, so we’re going to take them home.”

For the older kids, it’s generally a student issue. There are those who tell their parents they’re going to school but end up at Miller Park all day.

“But there’s also a lot of kids working or staying at home to watch other children while the parent works,” Grzeskowiak said. “That is our number one and two reason, especially for older kids, that students miss class. We even have fifth graders staying home to watch pre-K kids. If you are economically disadvantaged, you don’t have the money for day care, which costs a ton of money, and it’s hard to find. We get kids that are working full time. They come to school in the morning and skip school in the afternoon. Or they go to alternative school.”

Getting these kids in the system consistently is a challenge for the district. Truancy laws are worthless, as “we found that it doesn’t work to harass, cite and send kids to a judge,” Harklerode said. “It just makes the situation worse.”

There could be other solutions, such as building a preschool at the high school. But with the failed school bond, the district just doesn’t have the space, and SSA funds cannot be used to upgrade facilities.

But does giving the school $1.14 million help with getting kids more stable home lives?

“Outside of building classes that interest students and draw them in, it doesn’t,” Grzeskowiak said. “But do we have trade programs that would get them something better than a minimum wage job? That’s what gets kids back.”

And getting kids to want to go to school is the ultimate goal of the SSA process.

“I want school to be the highlight of the day for every kid that comes to school,” Harklerode said. “I know that’s not the case. Are there other ways we can make school the highlight of the day? It breaks my heart, especially when we are trying to increase attendance. Some of the kids, coming to school is just not their jam.”

Parent Eileen Sapp, who attended one of the district’s SSA meetings, suggested thinking like students.

“[My daughter’s] teachers lets them eat in class,” she said. “Giving them the autonomy to decide when they’re hungry, for us it’s not even a thing. But we put so many rules on these kids, they’re hyped when they can eat in class. It seems ridiculous to us, but to them it’s huge. You’re saying, ‘I trust you to eat when you’re hungry and not make a mess.’ That seems like such a huge part of it — letting them make decisions when they’re able to, and letting them feel they’re trusted and capable of making good decisions for themselves.”

Grzeskowiak agreed, pointing out that allowing students to use the bathroom pass during his classes helped prevent students from being tardy.

ASPIRE volunteer Mary Deceualt, who also attended an SSA meeting, mentioned parents helping with teaching as well.

“You can teach at home. How many parents just sometimes would rather do things like build a fence by themselves?” she asked. “It’s going to take a half hour more to involve your child, but it’s going to be a learning experience. It goes back to the home situation.”

Whatever the solutions, the district will need the entire community to find them.

“Thinking outside the box, from left field to right field to all over the place, how can we implement programs that not only help our students, but the broader community as well?” Utz asked.

The answers could begin to be found on Thursday, Feb. 20, when the district holds its next SSA community meeting at the Florence Events Center, 715 Quince St. The meeting starts at 6 p.m., but for those who can’t make it, a general survey is available online at