Jefferson County School District 509-J is located in Central Oregon’s rural high desert and serves the towns of Metolius, Antelope, Big Muddy Ranch, and the Warm Springs Reservation. Major industries in the area include ranching and farming, but the 509-J district’s poverty level is among the highest in the state. At least three of four school children in the district qualify for free or reduced school lunch. Such conditions create a challenging environment for teaching and learning, and the district’s academic student outcomes trail state and national benchmarks.
For a district facing such challenges, the School District Collaboration (SDCF) grant provides a blueprint for strengthening professional development so there can be an effective teacher in every classroom.
“Our district has some unique challenges,” says Georgina Fugate, a science teacher at Madras High who was recently given a special assignment to oversee the collaboration grant work as the district’s school improvement specialist. “In education, there are fads that come and go, and what works in one district may not be effective in another. What’s exciting about getting to work on this grant is that we’re focusing on what our students need to be successful, what our teachers need to be successful.”
Jefferson County’s commitment to the process began with the formation of its grant design team last fall. In addition to teachers and administrators, the district invited community stakeholders — school board members, business leaders, Warm Springs tribal leaders — to sit as partners at the table. These stakeholders asked questions and offered “real world” insights that may not have come up for discussion otherwise.
One of these community stakeholders was Teresa Martin, a design team member who works as executive director of a child-care center and preschool in Madras.
“I asked a lot of ‘Why?’ questions,” she says, “Like why they were doing something a certain way, and whether it was because that’s the way they’ve always done it or because it’s the right thing.” She adds, “I believe I was able to bring different lenses to the discussion — the parent lens, the early childhood lens, the business lens. I think my perspective helped us look at things a bit differently.”
Deanie Smith, an educator with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, joined the design team to help what she described as the “difficult relationship” between the district and the tribal community.
“I know our teachers are working very hard, but it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Smith, who added that having a tribal voice at the table is essential if the district wants to progress.
“There has to be a connection,” she says. “There has to be greater cultural understanding.” For example, she noted that school officials seemed to be unaware of a recent spate of deaths in the community that impacted student families, and that they lacked understanding of tribal customs dealing with death.
“To me, professional development should be about the community you’re teaching in, so you can build strong relationships,” Smith says. “When you come right down to it, education is about relationships.”
Chalkboard coach Jenny Gillet agrees that it is vital to involve community partners in decision-making whenever possible, as the results of such collaboration can include increased cultural responsiveness. “We believe in a process that puts individuals from different backgrounds and different contexts at the center of how and what to improve for each student in Oregon,” she says.
The district welcomed the input it received from its diverse community stakeholders. “Having different points of view broadened our understanding of the work and added a richness to our conversations,” says Randy Bryant, the district director of human resources and operations.
Once assembled, this design team dove straight into the work in November 2017. From the outset, the group committed to avoiding “solutionitis” — the term used to describe the rushed implementation of a solution before taking time to understand the actual problem meant to be solved. The team pored over current research on professional learning and conducted interviews with teachers to gauge exactly what was working or not working in the district. These in-depth, open-ended interviews, were conducted face-to-face, and yielded much richer data than a run-of-the-mill survey.
The product of all this work can be seen in the plans the team has developed. The district coalesced around a set of ideas to strengthen professional learning communities. They prioritized making professional learning activities more relevant to teachers’ work in the classroom. A key to this would be giving teachers time and training to collaborate more effectively.
Here was another point where the voice of community stakeholders was heard. Time for training and collaboration is often created by implementation of late-start and teacher in-service days. When these occur, parents become responsible for finding childcare. Teresa Martin, a design team member who is a parent of two students in the district’s schools, gave specific input to the team about the importance of communicating the academic purpose of district initiatives — for example, letting parents know the purpose and benefits of the collaboration that occurs when teachers have professional development late-start days. Martin says, “It’s an opportunity for parents to be more supportive of their students and the district.”
Come September, Jefferson County will move out of the design phase, and will start piloting the teacher-driven ideas and practices they’ve come up with as part of the three-year implementation phase of the collaboration grant. The hard work is really just starting.
“Giving teachers a voice and supporting them to be as effective as possible, I believe directly translates into improving outcomes for students,” Fugate says. “I really feel our district is ready to take this step.”
- Teacher Leadership
- Student Success
- Equity and Diversity
- Professional Learning