District fights to raise test scores:

School faces the multiple factors that have lead to below average attendance and test

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District fights to raise test scores:

Oregon Department of Education

Oregon Department of Education

Oregon Department of Education

Emma Nolan, Editor-in-Chief

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The school is the dictionary definition of small-town America. Most Willamina students have been with their graduating class since Kindergarten. Staff members have children and grandchildren at Willamina, sometimes having even graduated here themselves. But, problems unique to rural school districts also affect Willamina.

This district has a high trauma rate, low attendance and state testing scores that consistently fall short, across all grades. There are multiple factors contributing these numbers, in and out of the district’s control.  So, why is Willamina falling significantly below state standards and what are we doing to fix it?

 

Not enough time in class

Willamina High School and middle school work on a schedule of eight class periods a day, 47 minutes each. This is unique to Willamina; most schools have switched to block periods where there are fewer but longer classes. “By having eight periods a day, we can offer more electives and more opportunities. More availability for core classes. Rather than just two sections of Geometry, we can offer three. Students can organize their schedule and have access to some of those electives they want and still get the core credits they need,” Carrie Zimbrick, superintendent, said.

This year, the district expanded its middle school math class into two periods in an attempt to raise its math scores. According to Willamina’s state report card, 72% of middle schoolers failed their mathematics state testing compared to Oregon’s average of 31.7%.

Four years ago, a similar model was used for middle school English.

“When we did that we started seeing significant gains in our students’ growth, academic growth and their state scores,” Tim France, principal, said. “Knowing thatunfortunatelyour math scores are also very low, this is an attempt put in some interventions.”

Currently there is no plan to change the high school’s eight period day. Longer class periods would give students more one-on-one with teachers but with the current schedule, it is possible for freshmen to fail an entire year and still graduate on time. However the district is implementing other interventions to help turn around these statistics.

 

Attendance

Last year’s senior class had a graduation rate of 65 percent, 2 percent below what the state deems “unacceptable.” Of the remaining 35 percent, nine kids moved, four literally dropped out and the remaining 14 disappeared from the district. There was no request for records or notice of them being enrolled in a GED program/adult education classes.  

Dean of Students Bart Baldwin is making an attendance push this year in an attempt to catch these lost kids and improve the school’s numbers. Oregon already has a chronic absentee problem but Willamina still scored lower than the state average.

“Just tackling that, we are going to see improvements in other things. You can’t learn if you aren’t here,” Zimbrick said.

Her goal is to raise attendance to 90 percent. Dedicated funds have been put aside to reward first period classes with the highest attendance. Baldwin has also been monitoring students’ attendance. Three strikes, excused or unexcused, means a trip to the office or a call home.

Even the kindergarten has been struggling with student attendance. Dibetta cites attendance as one of the biggest factors in the school’s test scores.

“If they went to preschool and are coming to kindergarten, but are missing a lot of school that puts huge holes into their learning. I already have a few that are missing quite a bit of school that can’t afford it,” Dibetta, said.

 

High trauma district

Willamina is a high trauma district, more than 95 percent of its K-12 students are economically disadvantaged. This percentage affects not only state testing but also the district’s approach to discipline and curriculum.

“What happens is kids that are in poverty. Struggling to make ends meet. Struggling with the basic necessities. They don’t have the time that other families do to read with their kids,” Sandy Dibetta, kindergarten teacher, said, “What we find is kids coming in with a low vocabulary who haven’t been read to a lot, haven’t been communicated to a lot. Their vocabulary is a lot more limited and it really affects what they understand in school.”

The elementary has begun trauma-informed practices this year like PAX GBG (Good Behavior Game) and GEMS (Growing Early Mindsets). These programs are designed to teach kids self control and get them interested and excited to learn. RULER (Recognizing Understanding Labeling Expressing and Regulating Emotions) will be added to the curriculum next year after being taken for a test run by elementary staff. “The goal of RULER is to get staff to stop and think ‘what their best teacher self would be’ before dealing with a difficult situation,” Norwood said.

Oregon Department of Education

These programs are worked into an elementary student’s schedule, alongside their core classes. Students start and end school in circle time where they talk about their day: did they eat dinner, did anyone have a good or a bad night? Thirty minutes is devoted to social and emotional time, 90 to literacy and 45 to math. Balancing social programs and state curriculum is a difficult decision. Time spent on these programs could be used to build core subjects and possibly lead to higher scores. But, are the skills being learned in these programs more important in the long run than state testing?

“Before we fix our test scores or curriculum we need to fix our kids. We could have the magic curriculum where if a kid reads a book they would be able to pass any test in the world and it still wouldn’t matter because our kids aren’t having their needs met,” Cera Norwood, Willamina Elementary School principal, said.

Willamina also offers free universal breakfast and lunch in an attempt to meet these needs. It’s harder for kids struggling from meal to meal to concentrate and the district has seen improvements since introducing the program. “As a school we are overwhelmed with taking care of basic needs we know it has to happen. We know if we want to get to where we need to, it has to happen,” Zimbrick said.

 

Discipline

“There is a big push for exclusionary discipline. . . Removing a child from their education is our last resort. We need to find ways that they can still have access to their education and sometimes that means building new strategies as teachers,” Zimbrick said, “They use a term, the ‘school to prison pipeline.’ Those that are in prison were students who typically had a high rate of suspension in their education years.”

Exclusionary discipline usually involves explosions and suspensions, any punishment that takes students away from their education. This type of discipline can be complicated in a high trauma school district.

So, instead of traditional discipline, the district had been trying to implement a system called restorative justice, where the offender and offended have a face-to-face and a chance to repair the relationship. “The best way to teach respect is to model it,” Zimbrick said, “We have to be genuinely caring adults. Make an effort to build relationships that nurture a child. The easy route is to remove a child when they are disruptive but the hard work is to work through the reasons for that behavior.”

This year, the district has brought back its ECHO (Each Child Has Opportunity) room, that serves as the elementary’s in-school suspension. A behavior intervention coach works on collaborative problem solving with the kids and builds skills instead of sending disruptive students home. It also can be used as a cool down for students who feel they are going to explode behaviorally.

“Last year was a nightmare without it. We had kids in the office constantly. My office was usually full. Mr. Murrell’s office was full. Kids were screaming and this was all happening while our secretaries were trying to take phone calls or parents were in the office,” Sarah Norwood, elementary principal said, “With ECHO it is a much better place to be.”

Shawn Draper, the new dean of students, has taken a different approach to this same concept. Draper believes that the conversation with student is crucial step in disciplinary action and tries to identify the triggers that caused the behavior. However he doesn’t allow these triggers to become an excuse for breaking the rules. Along with restorative justice, Draper will also be implementing traditional punitive action.

“I feel like even for kids with trauma, they do need to understand still that the reality of life is that negative choices have consequences. I try to be as consistent as possible with my discipline procedures,” Draper said. “If we don’t have high standards then what are we doing here?”

 

Lack of Early Education Access

A large majority of this year’s Kindergarten class attended preschool in some form, mostly Head Start. Almost all of the parents who were eligible took advantage. “They are a lot more independent learners. They are able to handle delay of gratification, wait their turn and share. They do really seem better prepared than what I’ve had in years past,” Dibetta said.

Still, preschool can become a financial burden on parents already struggling to make ends meet. Transportation is expensive and can be impossible for working parents to manage. However, it’s in the numbers. Preschool is even more so essential for children from low incomes, according to an article published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. For these kids, missing preschool can affect them years after Kindergarten.

“For the kids that don’t have any kind of preschool, they usually don’t come in knowing how to write their name, letter sounds, number recognition. If they are coming in with a speech delay or any other kind of delay they aren’t diagnosed with that. Where if they go to preschool often they will come in with those things already in place,” Dibetta said.

Even working class parents who are above the poverty line face their own problems. The Head Start program will not accept kids whose parents make too much money.

Zimbrick and Norwood have always dreamed about opening a preschool on campus. Any expansion is restricted because of the campus’s limited fire suppression. For now teachers like Dibetta cope with these gaps by separating kids into groups based on their reading level.

 

No child left behind

Currently, all middle schoolers are promoted to high school despite their grades, absences or behavioral problems. “Retention after a certain age, the research shows, is more detrimental to the student. There is almost no positive consequences after the age of 7 or 8. You are better off at as district to look at what the needs of that student are and give them supports,” Zimbrick said.

However, catching these struggling students doesn’t have a cookie cutter solution and many still fall through the cracks.

“Does pushing kids who are failing class after class, is that doing them any good either? I personally don’t think so but the answer to that would be there are people high enough who make the decisions who haven’t quite figured that out yet,” Draper said.

In some ways, the district is fighting an uphill battle, with over 95 percent of students, economically disadvantaged and state attendance already below national average. However, other factors are in our control, like our schedule and programs. Perhaps, it is our duty as a community to be vigilant and continue to find ways to improve our school district. “The state testing is just a snapshot of what our students know.  There is so much more knowledge that they demonstrate on a day to day basis. I don’t think that the state testing should be the only representation of what our students can do,” Norwood said.