Battling a COVID backslide in Central Oregon schools

Jefferson County officials are working to ensure recent graduation rate gains don’t slide during distance learning

Part One of a three part series

ABOVE PHOTO:  Emily Crowley, a reading teacher at Buff Elementary School in Madras, Lauren McCartney, a first grade teacher at Buff; and Esther Kalama, a first grade teacher at Warm Springs K-8 Academy, worked on curriculum planning and emphasizing essential standards in early August. – PMG file photo: Teresa Jackson 

A few years ago, the graduation rates in the Jefferson County 509-J School District were shockingly low.

In the 2012-13 school year, the district was a full 10 percentage points behind the state of Oregon, with just 58.3% of local high school students graduating on time.

Over the past few years, however, the district has turned a corner, making huge gains in graduation rates. For the class of 2019, for example, the rate was 78%, on par with the rising statewide average. And, what’s more, gaps seen between the graduation rates of minority and white students in the district have closed dramatically.

Now, however, families in Jefferson County, like those across the state and nation, worry that their children will fall behind, losing some of the momentum the district had gathered. Oregon shifted abruptly to distance learning in all its schools last spring, making many of the strategies the district had been using difficult to implement.

According to a survey of district families, of 740 respondents, 420 said the top concern about distance learning in the spring was the “learning impact for your student.” A second survey found that 374 of the 780 respondents, nearly half, were concerned their students had fallen behind.

When the district closed its classrooms on March 16, teachers began reaching out to families with phone calls, email and online platforms.

It also put out two surveys — one to see how distance learning had gone and one to ask for parents’ preferences for fall reopening.

Though the district’s ethnic groups are roughly equal — one-third Latino, one-third Native American and one-third white — 54% of the respondents who identified their race or ethnicity in the surveys were white. Another 18% were Native American, 17% were Latino and 10% identified as multi-racial.

The district didn’t break down the results by race or income, but they do give a general picture of how families were feeling as distance learning was underway in spring.

PMG file photo: Teresa Jackson  — Karina Hernandez waved her diploma to Madras High School staff who cheered for her as she left the drive-up graduation ceremony in June.

Most of those who responded said they had adequate family support and sufficient income, but 12% said they were navigating poverty. That’s despite the poverty rate in the district being high enough that all students are given free breakfast and lunch.

Families’ response to distance learning materials and online platforms was mixed, with most finding them effective but many disagreeing. Seventy-six percent of those who responded said consistent teacher-student interaction and feedback was either highly effective or effective, compared to 18% who said it was minimally effective or ineffective.

They also said the top barrier to distance learning was their child’s motivation and willingness to engage.

With the Jefferson County’s health metrics such that Public Health Director Michael Baker has warned that students probably won’t be going to their school building until 2021, the district has purchased Chromebooks and hotspots for families to check out.

About half of all families didn’t have adequate internet access for distance learning in the spring, so the district provided paper packets at multiple lunch sites.

This year, families have the option of distance learning with their local teachers and classes with the goal of returning to the school building or a fully online model, where students will enroll for the entire year through the company Edgenuity.

Madras Elementary School Principal Chris Wyland said the school has always made a commitment to giving students the support they need during the school day.

“That’s really easy to say, and in distance learning it might be harder to do,” he said.

The district, and Madras Elementary in particular, have been identifying the most critical education standards students need to understand.

“One of things that we are really trying to work hard on is being really crystal clear on what we want every student to learn,” Wyland said.

Cars become classrooms

However, not everyone has a flexible schedule. Tasheena Arthur, who has two children at K-8 Academy, has not been able to stay at home during the school day. She works 10-hour shifts at the Indian Head Casino, owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

She says Emmalina, a fourth grader, and Danielle, a sixth grader, are self-motivated but struggle with distance learning.

“I have to be quiet so that they get their work done,” Arthur says. “They honestly haven’t been in school every day, because the Wi-Fi at home don’t work, and I don’t know anyone who has Wi-Fi I can borrow,” Arthur said.

So, on most days, after her shift ends at 2 p.m., she heads home, picks up her kids and their Chromebooks and heads back to the casino.

“We park where all the semis park in the east parking lot,” Arthur says. “It gets pretty good connection.”

She says Danielle can work fairly independently, but Emmalina tends to need more help. Arthur does what she can.

“I don’t want to sit at the casino parking lot because I work there for 10 hours,” she says. But it is the only option she has to keep her kids in school.

In addition to the logistics, Arthur says the timing is challenging. She’s not able to get back to the casino every afternoon, and when she does, by the time her kids are finished with the day’s lessons, it’s late. “I’ve been emailing my fourth grader’s teacher saying, ‘Hey, we’re lost. But it’s after-hours, so he can’t really help me.”

Arthur was unaware that their home internet connection wouldn’t work for lessons, so she didn’t apply for a hot spot when they first were offered. Now, she’s been told, it’s too late.

“I called the school, and they said they don’t have any more hot spots,” she said.

But even with hot spots, parents in Jefferson County face additional obstacles.

“The community has been getting hot spots, but in parts of the reservation, my students have been having trouble with connectivity,” says Shayla Stwyer, who teaches Native American languages at Warm Springs K-8 Academy and has three children of her own in school. “It disrupts entire lesson plans when students can’t connect.”

In Garcia’s home, Atticus shows his dad the screen of his Chromebook. “This site cannot be reached,” it reads.

“I don’t know what to do when this happens,” Garcia says. “I’ll call the company again.”

This article is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group, and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.