Visiting students door-to-door, has made the difference in the small Marion County school district
ABOVE PHOTO: Augustine Guido, a senior at Gervais High, talks about his experiences before and during the pandemic. ~ PMG Photo: Phil Hawkins
The pandemic of 2020 not only hit the town of Gervais hard, it worsened longstanding disparities in educational success for students of color.
But through creativity, and with the pandemic in retreat, some of those disparities — as well as outright despair — seem to be waning.
Tucked between Interstate 5 and Highway 99E, southwest of Woodburn, Gervais isn’t just small, it’s tiny. Its total population hovers just over 2,000, roughly the size of a large Oregon high school. The total student body at Gervais High School consists of just 331 students.
When the pandemic hit, city parks fell silent and students of all ages say they endured an immense wave of disengagement and apathy. High schooler’s grades plummeted. Some began to fail classes, putting their graduation and futures on the back burner. Many were forced to pivot to full-time or part-time jobs to support their families and spent significant portions of their days looking after younger siblings.
But months later, after a series of unconventional techniques implemented by the school including door-to-door visits, students have returned to in-person education and the high school is reaping the rewards as students’ grades are stabilizing and many say they have a new-found enthusiasm.
An action plan
As students and teachers slogged through online learning early in the year, Gervais saw significant dips in attendance. Students began to fall through the cracks.
Numbers fell throughout the district as some students declined teacher’s conference call class invites while others simply couldn’t find the time or energy to log on. In Quarter 1, which covers most of September and October, just 85.2% of Latino students — which make up roughly two-thirds of the district — attended class, compared to a rate of 95.4% for white students. The 10-plus percentage gap between Latino and white students was among the highest statewide. Both numbers fell further in Quarter 2, which ran from November to January, excluding the winter break, with the gap hovered at just under 10 percentage points.
Unsurprisingly, high schoolers, specifically seniors (79.1%), showed the lowest attendance rates. A two-week snapshot in mid-December indicated 40% of students were failing, according to reporting by Pamplin Media Group and Underscore.
Ana Contreras is a Gervais school board member and mother of a freshman and a sophomore at the high school. She cited the poverty rates in the area as a potential reason for the lack of attendance among the Latino student base. She said many families likely were overworked and, with adjustments for the pandemic, came increased responsibility for high-school-aged students to care for younger siblings.
According to statistics from December 2020, national youth participation in the labor market was at the highest point in 10 years, 36.2% compared to 35.2% at the same time in 2019, even as adult participation levels in the economy hadn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to the earlier article.
In the previous academic year, Gervais High, which has a majority Latino student body, boasted a 92% graduation rate. But a two-week snapshot taken in December 2020 indicated that 40% of students were failing. At the same time, the number of completed college aid applications at Gervais High School was down 43% from the same time in 2019, indicating less interest among this year’s senior class in continuing their education after high school.
In need of a spark, assistant principal Andrew Aman and secretary Julie Powers, among others from the Gervais high school office, put boots on the ground and went to work. The small team spent more than 20 hours per week knocking on doors and checking in with students with abnormally low or failing grades.
While those efforts haven’t yet shown up in state statistics, Aman estimated that nearly half of the disengaged students began to login in the weeks following the outreach.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt as connected to the Gervais community as I do now,” Amen said. “It was great to see students. It was great to understand specific family situations and it really gave us a grasp on what everyone was struggling with.”
The door-to-door check-ins didn’t just help floundering students regain a sense of control and enthusiasm that had been missing, it strengthened the family-like bond between the staff and students. When the high school returned to in-person near the end of March, Aman noticed a change in attitude.
“You’ll have these conversations with students in the hallway and they remember that you were at their door every other week for six months,” he said. “I think they’re starting to realize more and more every day that we care about them.”
Augustine Guido, a senior at Gervais High, experienced those house visits himself and has since become a nearly straight-A student, said the visits helped him stay motivated during the months of online learning. Now that he and his classmates have returned to school, he said they’re embracing it.
“The school is doing a fantastic job of making sure that the students who are behind get back up to where they need to be,” he said. “They’re doing a good job of making sure everyone is participating, making sure that everyone who needs to be there is there.”
Door-knocking wasn’t the district’s only creative endeavor. Sylvia Valentine-Garcia, the district’s director of special programs, reminded students that all the classes are recorded. She told Pamplin Media Group, “When you get home from work you have to eat dinner, right? So, while you’re eating dinner, can you listen to your recorded classes?”
Valentine-Garcia saw another potential solution for students preoccupied with tasks during the day: she started a program offering tutoring every night from 6 to 8 p.m., shifting funding to help students who were working or looking after siblings during the daytime.
“If we have a student not doing well because they’re taking care of their siblings during the day, while their parents are at work, then we have to help those students in the evening,” she said.
To fully grasp the impact COVID-19 has had on Gervais, it’s important to understand the city itself.
Contreras, the school board member, said it’s a place where it’s a necessity to drive alert when navigating the city’s streets, because they’re often filled with children congregating to play.
Guido, who is known as Auggie to his classmates, likened the city to one big family.
“It’s a family here, nobody is really left out,” he said. “We just love living.”
Holly Hamlin, a math teacher at the high school, describes the atmosphere to that of a team.
“There’s something really special about the Gervais community in that it’s got some diversity but the students don’t really know that,” she said. “They interact and care about each other as if they’re all part of the same team. … It’s a community of people who work hard and take things in stride and do what they have to do.”
Gervais is family oriented and community driven, so when the pandemic rolled through the rural town in Northwest Oregon, it fractured what many describe as a “special place.”
Back in the classroom
Like several districts around the state, the school has split students into two cohorts: “A” and “B” group. One group attends school Tuesdays and Thursdays while the other goes on Wednesdays and Fridays. During off-days, students tune in online to apply the concepts learned in person.
“I absolutely see how happy the kids are being back in school and being able to see their friends and having an appreciation for seeing the teachers and the work their teachers are doing,” Contreras said.
Guido and Hamlin admit it’s been a hassle to deal with the COVID-19 social distancing protocols but said they appreciate the work the district has done behind the scenes and relish the opportunity to be back at school.
“Everyone wants to be back and is thankful for the support in person that they can’t get at home,” Hamlin said. “I’m starting to see more and more confidence build, they’re coming out of their shell, which is exciting because we want active learners.”
With the return of classes came sports and other activities that had previously been missing. Guido is a starter on both the football and basketball teams. He said that, without sports, he struggled to find motivation, and he credits their return for the drive to pull his grades up.
“We’re only going two days a week but whatever we can get, whatever senior year I can have,” he said. “I’m just glad that we’re doing things.”
With routine health questionnaires and temperature checks upon entering and leaving the building, tracking devices which beep when students come too close to one another, required mask wearing and smaller class sizes, the return to school has been far from ordinary.
But for now, students, parents and teachers say they’ll settle for the slice of normality. They’re just happy the family is back together again.
This story was developed as part of the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. To learn more visit Journalism.UOregon.edu/Catalyst or on Twitter at @UO_catalyst.
Shane Hoffman is a journalism student at the University of Oregon who serves as a member of the UO Catalyst and the sports editor at The Daily Emerald. This article includes reporting that Sergio Olmos did for Underscore.news as part of Lesson Plans, a collaboration with Pamplin Media and other newsrooms around the country looking at the impact of COVID-19 on rural schools.