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Another Voice: District can brag, yet schools must also lift

When my superintendent peers across the state ask me, “So, how’s it going so far in Hood River County?” I can’t help but smile as I explain what most folks around here already know — we have an amazingly committed community and an amazingly committed school staff. Honestly, with a combination like that, the future looks bright for the Hood River County School District.

A half-year into the job and I continue to be humbled by the opportunity to serve and lead our school system, and I continue to brag about our school district and our students’ achievements to others across the state.

So, why has HRCSD earned bragging rights? In nearly every school district in Oregon, and in nearly every year since 1992, school budgets have been squeezed — most severely since 2008. While our school district has certainly not been immune to these tough economic times, we’ve been buoyed by the steadfast support of our community and the dedication of our staff: because our community believes in us and supports us, and because of the “kids come first” culture of our teachers and staff, our schools have achieved notable successes that you should be exceptionally proud of.

In virtually every critical measure of student performance our students achieve above the Oregon state average — despite having far more students learning English in addition to their native language and far more students living below the poverty line. Once again, this year we posted very high graduation rates and very low drop-out rates; we have numerous dual-credit opportunities where students earn college credit while still in our high school; our STEAM (integrated science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) programs have led to notable student outcomes in mathematics and statewide accolades for a number of our teachers; our arts and athletics programs are varied, community supported, and highly successful; and — don’t even get me started on Air Guitar!

Since accepting the role as your superintendent and moving here with my family in July, I’ve met individually or in small groups with more than 300 people, held various “listening sessions” in the community, and met with each school’s teaching and support staff. The intent has been to ask what people want for the future of the school district and how we should prioritize our limited resources. From these conversations a few universal themes have emerged:

  1. People want the school district to focus on student learning and getting our resources as close to the classroom as possible. They want lower class sizes and a reinvestment in essential instructional resources that have been deferred for long periods of time;

  2. People want us to focus on equity and ensuring we have high expectations and supports in place for every kid, no matter their background;

  3. People want more pathways for their children: more career-technical programs in addition to a continued effort to prepare more kids for college; and,

  4. People want us to ensure their kids are safe at school.

Without a significant reinvestment in public education in the state of Oregon, enhancements in some areas can only be realized with efficiencies in others. For instance, no one wants big class sizes. Why? Anyone who has stepped into a first-grade classroom (for example) and has seen what it takes to get every 6-year-old to read, knows that having 25 kids with one teacher is a really, really huge lift.

Unfortunately in Oregon, 25 students to every one teacher is fast becoming a distant memory. All over the state, elementary classrooms with more than 30 students are the new and unfortunate norm. And routinely, Oregon high schools squeeze more than 40 students into classrooms!

Thankfully our community has approved local levies and bonds for our schools, refusing to allow such untenable conditions to roost here at home. Still, our class sizes are too big for anyone’s liking and we have to continue to find the funds to hire more teachers. Again, without adequate state-level funding, we have to control costs in other areas to make this a reality.

Shortly, the Oregon Department of Education will release its budget forecast for each school district in the state. I’m hopeful that we’ll have slightly more resources for the first time in years, but it will still be far shy of what our youth deserve. With lots of pressing needs throughout our schools, it’s good we have a sense of our community’s wishes as we plan for the future successes of our schools and students.

Regardless of the upcoming budget news, I’m thankful for what we have here, grateful that my daughters go to school with awesome teachers and good friends, and gratified that I get to brag.

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Dan Goldman is superintendent of Hood River County School District.

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