Feb. 12, 2020 — “Last year, the state senate passed the Student Success Act (SSA),” Siuslaw School District Superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak said. “It really brings us back to a level, service wise, of where we were 25 years ago. It’s filling in a lot of gaps.”
Grzeskowiak was opening the first of three community forums surrounding the SSA, which is expected to bring approximately $1.14 million to the district. The funds are designated for meeting students’ mental and behavioral health needs, reducing academic disparities for students from historically underserved populations, providing access to academic courses, establishing and strengthening partnerships and allowing teachers and staff time to collaborate, review data and help students stay on track to graduate.
The broad categories of allowable investments of the funds are to improve class size, to provide a well-rounded education for all students, increase instructional time, and address health and safety for students
“Part of getting that extra money into the district is making sure we have input from people in the community as to the priorities of programs,” Grzeskowiak said. “Otherwise, it just becomes an exercise of administrators and boards guessing at what the school needs.”
The meeting he was attending, scheduled in the morning, was sparsely attended — it’s expected that the next meeting, held at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 20, at the Florence Events center, will have greater attendance.
The meetings each consist of an introduction and then input sessions from community members, who are given copies of student and district data from the Oregon Department of Education to help them in making choices about the programs. After each session, the community is invited to fill out a survey to give input off of the information discussed. For those who don’t attend the forums, a general link is available at http://bit.ly/SIA_SNEWS.
Despite the low turnout at the January session, the district has already been reaching out to gain input on the data, from parents and administrators to local governments.
During the next few issues, Siuslaw News will look at the broader issues facing the district when it comes to SSA funding, with topics that range from graduation rates and Career Technical Education (CTE), to class size, absenteeism and cultural differences within the district.
“This is the community’s school,” said District board chair Guy Rosinbaum. “I was elected to help the community run the kind of school they want to run. I’m interested in what they have to say, and I’m sure the rest of the board is interested in what they have to say.”
One of the first goals of the funding, and one of the greatest misconceptions surrounding Siuslaw School District, is its graduation rate, which is currently on par with the Oregon average, resting at 79 percent. However, this is down six percent from the previous year.
“In ‘17-18, we had a graduation rate of 85 percent,” Grzeskowiak explained. “We had, in essence, 85 out of 100 kids graduate. So last year, in ‘18-19, you had 79 of the same class graduate out of roughly 100.”
From that number, it would seem that the district is having trouble with graduating seniors. But the graduation rate doesn’t tell the full story.
The “five-year completion rate,” which includes students who passed the GED, rose 5 percent in the ‘18-19 school year to 92 percent, seven points higher than the Oregon average of 85 percent.
“So the graduation rate went down while the other went up,” Grzeskowiak explained. “Kids that complete a GED are not considered ‘graduates’ by the state definition. Our overall completion rate is going up because the average number of kids completing a GED is also going up. When you put those numbers together, the number of kids that completed in total is 91 percent.”
It should also be noted that with such a small graduating class size, even just a handful of students delaying graduation can make it appear that there is a giant dip in a graduation rate.
“We’re talking about the economy of scale. Six kids move out of the senior class in Springfield or Eugene, they’re not noticed. ... Our rate will make minor changes and they’ll be fluctuations there, but getting a kid completed is really what’s important.”
Grzeskowiak points to the relationships that staff and students build into the system as to a reason the completion rate is high.
“We have a good enough environment that kids who don’t finish in their fourth year are actually coming back to finish,” he said.
“We’re sticking with them,” Siuslaw Elementary Principal Mike Harklerode added.
Still, there are a handful of students who do not end up graduating, and the reasons for this are complex. However, the reasons are different than many would think.
“Kids don’t get to their senior year and drop out. That’s rare,” Grzeskowiak said. “When that happens, it’s usually because of a family issue. A parent falls ill and the child has to drop out and take care of the family.”
Another issue that can occur is how the state tracks graduation rates, which is different from other states. In Texas, if a student moves to a high school, the school is responsible for the student to graduate. However, if the student moves away, the school is no longer responsible for the student.
Oregon is different. When a student moves away, the school is still responsible for the student until the school can prove that they enrolled in another program. But if the district can’t prove that the student enrolled in another program, it counts as a dropout for the school.
“Somehow, when they’re moving, we lose connection,” Grzeskowiak explained. “If they’ve had an enrollment in your school, and aren’t registered somewhere else, they’re your dropout. It happens more often than people think.”
That’s not to say the district simply gives up after a student moves away unexpectedly.
“Our administrators and councilors have done a very good job of tracking kids through social media to find out where they are, what they’re doing, and if they’re not doing something academic, working to get them in a program so they can get completed,” Grzeskowiak said. “If they can complete through us, great. If we can get them completed through job corps, community college, or get enrolled in another school district, great. They’ll become a completer for somebody.”
With a local economy that is seasonal, students moving in and out of the district is common.
“We have a group of kids that start with us in the fall, they’re here with us until Christmas, then they leave because they’re parents are working a seasonal job,” Grzeskowiak said. “And then they come back at spring break. That’s about five percent of our population. They cycle out twice a year.”
Harklerode added, “The previous year, we finished with 610 students at the elementary school, but we had almost 750 students go through the school at some point.”
And every time a student moves, the more difficult it is for them to graduate on-time.
“For them, it’s a continuity issue,” Grzeskowiak said. “They try and pick up at another school, and then they’re leaving in the middle of another term to come back here. If a kid never moves, they have an 85 percent chance of graduating. If they move once, it drops to 50 percent. If they move twice, it’s down to 25 percent.”
But one of the greatest problems with graduation is baked into the system itself, as schools across the nation have shifted to college preparedness.
“When I first started teaching here, we had kids that graduated as juniors,” Grzeskowiak said. “They were graduating early because they had a total number of credits.”
But a push for students to become “college ready” in the past few decades has increased the number of classes students are required to take.
“It takes 24 credits to graduate,” Grzeskowiak explained. “Ideally, six credits every single year. Freshmen have a requirement for math, English, science, health, social studies and then one elective. Next year, as a sophomore, they have one less required class. For our freshmen, six of their seven periods are pretty much predetermined. For sophomores, five of their seven periods a day are predetermined. By the time they get to be a senior, they have personal finance economics and a fourth year of English. Those are the only two prescribed classes.”
The process seems simple enough: start your high school career taking the prescribed classes, and then finish it up exploring a wide variety of electives that could help you choose which direction you want to take in life.
But in reality, things don’t always work as planned, as Algebra 1 is the most failed class by students.
“If you came in as a freshman and you have six prescribed classes, and you failed two or three of them, you have to retake those required classes in the next two years,” Grzeskowiak said. “If you fail Algebra 1 as a freshman, then you have to take Algebra 1 as a sophomore, which means that Geometry and Algebra 2 get pushed further. Well, if you really struggle with math, and you either delay taking math a year or you unfortunately don’t pass it two years in a row, now in your junior year, you’re taking Algebra 1 and Geometry simultaneously, while you also have other prescribed classes that you’ve pushed off to your senior year.”
That’s when a student enters “credit bankruptcy,” which could cause a whole host of issues for a student’s future.
“If you’re a freshman who signed up for seven classes and failed five, even if you got As in the first two, you’re going to start off with a horrible GPA,” Grzeskowiak said. “And it takes a phenomenal amount of time to build that back up,” which can cause problems for college admissions.
The issues are compounded for transfer students.
“You regularly have sophomores and older that come in who have very few credits,” Grzeskowiak said. “You start laying out a plan. When you talk to a junior and say, ‘You have three years of high school to do in a year-and-a-half,’ technically they can do it. Between alt schools and regular classes, they can do it. But that means all they’re doing for the 18 months is school. And a lot of our kids contribute to the family with a job. So they literally can’t do that because their time is occupied earning a living to help a family.”
Frustrated, some of these students see only one alternative: “Drop out, go to work, get frustrated again, go back to community college years later and get a GED,” Grzeskowiak said.
Getting students to understand the importance of passing a class like Algebra 1 while they’re freshmen is difficult.
“I know when I was 14, you couldn’t tell me anything, other than when dinner was,” he said. “Trying to have kids make that big of a decision at that point in time that could impact the rest of their life, that’s hard. That’s why high school staff pay particularly close attention to the freshmen, and make sure they get as many kids as possible to get six credits by the end of their freshmen year.”
Fixing the Algebra 1 issue is challenging, though there are schools that are thinking out of the box.
“Elmira High School is trying something new,” Grzeskowiak said. “The traditional sequence is Algebra 1, then Geometry, then Algebra 2. Elmira is taking Geometry and putting it into the freshmen year. Algebra is nonlinear, abstract thinking, but kids are concrete thinkers, and if it doesn’t go A, B, C, D, they can get lost.”
Geometry, on the other hand, is more linear, so Elmira has flipped their geometry to freshman year in hopes that it can introduce mathematical principles to students without overwhelming them. Siuslaw will be watching Elmira closely in the next year to see how that program works out, with the possibility of adoption if Elmira finds success.
Another way to fix the Algebra 1 problem is to start earlier.
For Siuslaw Elementary School, only 39.1 percent of all students passed the state’s annual math test in the past three years. This is actually on par with the state, which only has a 42.9 percent passing rate for the test. The reasons for this are also multiple.
According to Harklerode, “This has changed somewhat in recent years, but a good number of people are drawn to elementary education because they have a passion for teaching and reading, and people who are good at math tend to go do other things with their math skills. I can also say we’ve had big investments in professional development to raise teacher efficacy so they feel more confident teaching math.”
The elementary has also aligned its curriculum with the Common Core standards, which Harklerode believes will help with raising the elementary numbers.
“The intensity of math instruction is something we’re constantly working on. Different strategies, more time on math,” he said. “Time is one of the biggest things. Either a longer school day, school year, or structuring the day differently.”
But it’s a double-edged sword.
“What we’ve done in the eighth grade is now being required in fourth grade,” School Board Member Dennis King said. “Then you’re looking at developmentally, can they abstractly hold some of these things? The answer is no. The problem with pushing it down is that we couldn’t expect kindergartners to do algebra. That’s an exaggeration, but we’re trying to figure out how to build the curriculum.”
And they’re trying to figure out how to best teach mathematical principles to younger students, which leads to a discussion on Career Technical Education (CTE).
“I was a middle school teacher special educator,” said Siuslaw’s Special Programs Director Lisa Utz. “My colleague, who was teaching the math side of things, really put application on the front burner for math. They had dice, they had balancing, they had all sorts of ways for kids to understand algebraic equations. The kids really responded to that.”
One of the largest barriers to learning mathematics is a student’s inability to see its functionality in a book.
“You have to have a practical application piece, otherwise it makes no sense,” Grzeskowiak said. “If they can mark it out, measure it and cut a piece of wood, they see it. But doing that on a piece of paper doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
He recalled a time when he was teaching chemistry and physics and coordinated with the algebra teacher.
“If he was doing quadratic equations, I would do gravity equations. And then we would do gravity experiments,” Grzeskowiak said. “Kids would come in and see, ‘This is the same thing that Mr. Reiser is doing with us. Now we’re going to shoot this rocket in the air.’ They would see it as a mechanical function, then an application and go out and test it.”
Throughout all grade levels, the district is looking for ways to demonstrate math in a practical manner. At the elementary level, it is through activities such as science fairs.
“At the entry level science at high school, we’re going into pattern physical science. It’s all application math,” Grzeskowiak said.
Siuslaw High School students can also take classes such as woodshop for math credits, which is where CTE comes in.
Currently, the high school offers five CTE programs: auto, culinary, health sciences, computer science and construction.
“And we’re building our business program,” Siuslaw High School Principal Kerri Tatum said. “Likely, by the end of next year, we’ll have six. And we’re hoping to expand our construction so it’s full time as well.”
The benefits of CTE can be enormous for students. Students that complete a CTE program, on average between four and six semester classes, graduated at a rate of 89.3 percent, almost 10 points higher than the overall state average.
“The students that do complete a CTE program of study and go on to a four-year college also complete college at a higher rate,” Grzeskowiak said. “So the impact is bigger than just pre-service training for jobs, apprenticeships and trade schools.”
The district has expanded its CTE offerings with SSA funds, including restoring a metals and fabrication program and pushing CTE prerequisite electives in middle school. The district is already in the process of hiring a second computer information and technology teacher.
And the programs are paying off.
“With CTE, if people find out they’ve been a part of the culinary program, they’re swooped up,” Tatum said. “Most of the kids that are in Kyle Lewis’ Culinary program have jobs around town and are working in the field as high schoolers. We have a business and computer science program that just started last year and almost doubled in size in one year.”
However, building CTE programs can be challenging, particularly when it comes to finding teachers.
“When I started here in 2010, there were 40 applicants for each position,” Harklerode said. “Now, there’s 10 to 12. We’re still getting good applicants, and the 40 before weren’t necessarily all great, but it’s noticeable.”
That’s for elementary teachers.
For CTE programs, where teachers are required to have real-world experience in what they teach, the hiring process can be even more difficult.
“We have struggles recruiting people to come over,” Tatum said. “A lot of times, when we have different positions, maybe one or two applicants apply. It’s very rare that we have a large pool, and so often we’re struggling to bring people in. We don’t have some of the social scene and some of the activities for some of our younger teachers. Especially our single teachers, it’s hard to get them to come and live in Florence. There’s not really a whole lot, even for teenagers.”
And then there’s the stigma surrounding CTE courses, such as woodshop.
“There’s this idea that somehow CTE is somehow less than the university track,” Grzeskowiak said. “It used to be, you’re either going to college, or we’re pushing you into woodshop. The joke was, ‘I’m a moron because I know how to wire a lamp, you’re a genius because you can’t.’ If it was so easy, everybody would do it. We have people who say, ‘Well, they didn’t go to college.’ Well, they have no college debt and they make three times the average wage in town. So tell me, who’s the genius now? It’s the plumber and the electrician. That has to be respected in the school setting and the community. It’s just a different way of looking at things.”
While the district is doing well in creating the CTE programs, the staff can often be overwhelmed with the number of classes they have to teach. In the next edition of Siuslaw News, the relationship between hiring teachers and keeping graduates in the region will be explored, as well as cultural differences within the school and how the success of the district is vital to the health of the community.