Pamplin Media Group

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.

During 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.

Karina Hernandez waved her diploma to Madras High School staff who cheered for her as she left the drive-up graduation ceremony in June. Teresa Jackson/Pamplin Media Group

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. 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.

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. Teresa Jackson/Pamplin Media Group

“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.

That’s going to be even more important this fall. The Oregon Department of Education is restricting how much time students must spend online with a teacher.

“Learning is going to go slower,” Wyland said. “Teachers are going to cover less.”

That means they’ll have to be focused and concise, both with the time when students meet together online and when they are meeting separately or doing independent work, he said.

Wyland noted that, every year, teachers from across the district meet to identify critical standards. That work will be especially helpful as learning goes online this fall.

While distance learning provides its own challenges, Superintendent Ken Parshall said he is optimistic.

“We are continuing our focus on these research-based strategies for improving student achievement, and we are confident we will continue to make progress in student learning,” he said. “We have spent the last few weeks and will spend the next three weeks continuing to build our capacity to do this work well through a digital lens. We are confident we will be prepared to deliver much improved instruction through the digital platform than we did last spring.”

This article is part of a collaborative reporting project that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

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Teresa Jackson is editor of the Madras Pioneer. Her family has lived in the Central Oregon city for eight years.