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Helping students at Oregon's lowest performing schools

Original Source | The Oregonian
By George Rede, Saturday May 8, 2010

in-need-of-helpAll across the state, and especially in an election year, education and school reform are hot topics among candidates and constituents.

Oregon voters will elect a new governor and a state superintendent of public instruction and decide the makeup of the state Legislature. Together, the governor and lawmakers will decide the level of K-12 funding in the next two-year budget, which in turn will influence what local school officials can do in the areas of hiring, class size and academic reforms.

With all that as backdrop, two weeks ago, we posed a question to our Sunday Opinion readers:

"If Oregon could do one thing differently to help students in the state's lowest performing schools, what would it be?"

Today we share the dozens of responses that we received from educators, students,  politicians, advocates and members of the public, with the hope that these suggestions provide a springboard for further conversation - and action - around the state.

EDUCATORS

Two major suggestions for school reform: First, year-around school. We continue to use the model from the 1920s when we were an agricultural society, and the school calendar was designed around planting and harvest. Schools could go six weeks on, two weeks off. Retention would improve as students wouldn't have to be "re-taught" material the first month of school. Secondly, promotion from grade to grade would be based on meeting state standards and testing, instead of "social" promotion.

-- Jeff Davis, Superintendent, Central Curry School District 


 In three words: lower class size.

-- Kim Dwyer, fifth-grade teacher, Tigard-Tualatin School District


 My biggest change would be a focus on the basics and structuring elementary schools to worry more about getting basic skills and abilities to apply these skills in different situations than to push toward standardized tests. Many schools do not allow students to keep working on skills they have not understood as the class moves on, thus leaving the student behind and continuing the problem to the next grade level. Schools need to be more focused on students learning as a continuum rather than an end-all.

-- Chris Stanton, middle school teacher, Forest Grove Community School


As a teacher of over 30 years I would say that the parents are the most important element in the success of children. So engage the parents to show them how important education is.

-- Susan Blair, special education substitute teacher, Aloha


Full-day kindergarten for every student in Oregon. This idea saves money, improves test scores, makes for more competent lifetime readers and decreases the high school dropout rate. It saves money through decreased remediation costs in the middle and upper grades. It has the support of parents, educators, teacher unions, businesses and a majority of Oregonians. It works equally well at low-performing and high-performing schools and across socio-economic groups.

-- Dennis Storey, second-grade teacher, Gresham-Barlow School District


Oregon should expect from its schools the will, skill and competence necessary to eliminate the racial disparities in achievement, and ensure educational equity and excellence for students of all races. Oregon should examine and take action to change the structures, policies, programs and practices that perpetuate inequities based on race. Oregon should involve communities and parents in the process.

-- Angelita Gregson, multicultural/ELL coordinator, Tualatin High School


Stop "reforming" schools every year based on the latest fad or political sound bite. It creates a lack of instructional and curricular continuity, and wastes precious resources.

Provide the needed resources. Equity does not mean equal. Some schools and students simply need more support. Society must provide the health care, nutrition, assistance for families in crisis and enrichment opportunities that students need to be ready to learn and to achieve.

Stop perpetuating the myth that "low-performing schools" have poor teachers. This is not true. I see the dedication and commitment our teachers demonstrate every day on behalf of their students.

-- Rebecca Levison, sixth-grade teacher and president, Portland Association of Teachers


The practice of providing academic support to any struggling learner as soon as they encounter difficulty while maintaining access to the core curriculum has dramatic implications for student achievement. Support classes offered during the school day that address the individual learning needs through an integrated curriculum in addition to the traditional math and English classes has the greatest impact on accelerated skill-level development and student learning. This strategy supports higher expectations for students set by the new diploma requirements for our state as well as providing the foundational skills to stretch learning opportunities for all, including honors, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual credit classes at the high school level.

-- John O'Neill Jr., Forest Grove High School, 2008 Oregon High School Principal of the Year


We need a growth model that measures learning instead of stacking students up against arbitrary benchmarks. Currently, schools can receive the highest rating and still have gifted students who make no gains. When children "meet benchmark," they raise the ranking of their school, even if they were already "at benchmark" in September. There are also students who achieve more than two years' growth in one year, but because they don't quite "meet benchmark," the school gets penalized. Until we can identify truly low-performing schools, we cannot effectively analyze our needs.

-- Susan McKinney, principal, Fairview Elementary School 

 

Put students and their learning as the main focus of the education system. Eliminate any law or contractual obligation that interferes with this focus. Currently, we have a system that focuses on jobs and working conditions for adults, at the expense of students and learning. We need this clear vision and commitment to drive all decisions.

-- Tom Rinearson, superintendent, Lincoln County School District

 

Implement "Direct Instruction" programs with fidelity and vigor. Oregon has the brain-trust of education reform right there at the University of Oregon- (education professor) Siegfried Englemann. As the most effective and successful educator perhaps of all time, his expertise should be put to use as the state's official educational consultant. Follow his guidance with precision and intensity, and all low-performing schools would be performing on level in three years.

-- Carolyn Sharette, executive director, American Preparatory Schools, Utah

 

STUDENTS

The main reason that students do not choose to go to a lower performing school: electives. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. When not enough students go to one school, the government pulls funding from it, forcing the school to cut the electives. The more electives get cut, the more students move away from that school. And the circle continues again. Electives help motivate students to do better in other classes and when there is no motivation, students just stop trying. Funders need to understand that this motivation needs to be continuous for a student to know that someone cares. They need to put the fun back into schools, After all, most of us spend more than half of our lives there.

-- Saba Saleem, freshman, Portland State University, and 2009 graduate of Madison High School



My biggest complaint with schools today is that there is an obvious correlation between socioeconomic status and success with education, mainly concerning whether or not a student goes to college. Coming from a lower social class I didn't believe I was "college material" until halfway through my junior year, when my teacher encouraged me to take classes at the community college concurrently with high school classes. Going to Mt. Hood Community College motivated me to remain focused and determined at the end of my high school years. It baffles me why more schools don't emphasize postsecondary education.

-- Jessica Willis, freshman, Portland State University, and 2009 graduate of Centennial Learning Center


One thing Oregon could do differently would be to stop letting all of the older generations have all of the say in education matters. Education and schools are, for the most part, about students -- youth. Take the time to let youth voice their opinions, their ideals, and their solutions. Who knows more about the problems in schools than those who attend them? But more importantly, allow youth and adults to work closely together. Education is no longer a one-man show. It's time to bring everyone to the table.

-- Shawn Mentzer, freshman, Western Oregon University


When I think about Oregon and schools, what comes to mind is "limited teaching." I say limited teaching because teachers teach their subject but don't always take the time out to teach everyone what they need. Classrooms have 25 or more students, and not every kid is able to understand the work that is being taught or given. There are always a few kids who are silent in the classroom or shy away from everyone. If the teacher took more time out to really understand why a child is failing or not paying attention, the success rates would be very high.

-- Laborrah Sims, freshman, Portland Community College


I perform better in classes led by enthusiastic and supportive teachers. Enthusiasm does not necessarily mean a teacher must bounce off walls, though that helps keep sleepy kids awake. Rather, enthusiasm is the attitude and compassion that drives an individual to teach in the first place. While it may not be an easy thing to quantify, sometimes it is the intangible factors that encourage and help students the most. Students are more likely to engage in learning if they feel their teacher is genuinely interested in them and committed to their education.

-- Luisa Anderson, senior, Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, Beaverton


I think mandatory academic seminars like study halls would help. But to help students work hard in school is to let them know what they should be working forward to ... college. Teach them what college will bring them and maybe they will work harder to achieve in school, to reach higher education, and become what they aspire to be.

-- Royauna Mitchell, freshman, Mt. Hood Community College


I was home schooled from birth up till my freshman year, and I found that I had missed much socially. I'm now a junior at a Washington County high school and am enjoying a close-knit group of friends and whatever life throws at me. I think (we need) some sort of government-run "connection" for home schoolers, so they can benefit from the home school while still having a full social life: A web site? A physical gathering every week? I do not know the specifics, but I hope this suggestion will prompt someone to take this concept and put it into action so that other home-schooled kids can be more socially active.

    -- Taylor Overhuel, Hillsboro

     
If Oregon could do anything to help low-performing schools it would be sending more students to college classes during high school. Also, I think Oregon should really think about year-long schooling. It would be a good experience for students that are more serious about school. Also, maybe teachers should go back into training so what they teach will be college level work and students will be more prepared for college.

    -- Cheyenne Burris, freshman, Mt. Hood Community College

     

School should be a place where every single person is completely comfortable and feels like they belong in the school. The biggest problem that I see is that people are not feeling comfortable, not fitting in, not feeling like they belong there. School is a place where kids start recognizing the social hierarchy and it hinders self-confidence, self-esteem and passion. We know that kids are the future. Yet we sit them down, line them up, give them numbers and tell them you CAN be whatever you want when we should be telling them you WILL be, and you already are.

    -- Justin Buchanan, freshman, Western Oregon University

 

POLITICIANS

The ability to turn around a low-performing school is a problem that has confounded education for some time. I am unwilling to say that there is one single strategy will fix the problem. The education world is too willing to fall for the "one size fits all" solution. Even implementing a strategy proven in one location does not ensure success when replicated in another situation. What should be explored are strategies that help students and schools "beat the odds." We also should be unwilling to accept slow incremental change but should expect dramatic results for the better.

Given my reticence to identify one solution, I will suggest that strong leadership is critical for substantive change. The leadership of a school, school district, or state department of education must be willing to make dramatic change and must be unwilling to accept the status quo. That leader must be given the ability to create a committed team that sees the problem of failure and is willing to take risk to improve the situation. Then the leader must show results -- early. Lastly, the leader must be willing to quickly adjust course when results are not achieved. Results must trump ego.

-- Rep. Ron Maurer, R-Grants Pass, and candidate for Oregon superintendent of public instruction


Unfortunately, there is no "silver bullet" or "one size fits all" solution to help schools that are struggling. In order to improve our schools we need to set high expectations for student achievement and student behavior. We need to encourage and promote parental involvement in our public schools and ask parents to reinforce the value of education with their children and help promote the values of respect for others and personal responsibility. We need to ensure that there is a high-quality teacher in every classroom with the modern tools and resources they need to give students the individual attention that will keep them on track and away from risky activities. And we need to continue to expand Head Start programs, full-day kindergarten, and after-school tutoring programs that help our struggling students come to school ready to learn.

Finally, we shouldn't use unstable and inadequate funding as an excuse for not making progress towards greater student achievement, however schools do need stable and adequate resources to overcome the challenges of educating our students from year to year. In the meantime we work to ensure the best use of the funding we currently have to create success for all kids.

-- Susan Castillo, Oregon superintendent of public instruction


The academic year in China is 45 days longer than ours. This means Oregon students will eventually compete with Chinese kids who have had thousands more hours of learning time. Oregon needs to add four to eight weeks of school in the summer. There's indisputable research on the benefits. There's a lot of bang for this buck because ultimately it will save money if we can graduate kids into technical training or college in 10 years instead of 12. We don't have a problem with our kids or our schools. We just don't have our kids in school long enough.

-- Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton


I am not sure just looking at low-performing schools really gets to where we need to go. The problem is more systemic. The mandates handed down to schools by both the state and federal government in many cases get in the way of real education. Teachers need to have the freedom to teach and motivate their students. As it is now teachers have to spend too much time filling out reports to comply with any number of mandates and too much class time simply teaching for test scores that in many cases are probably not a true measure of education.

-- Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg 


Chronically challenged schools need strong instructional leadership from principals and teaching staff committed to boosting morale, confidence and expectations for students. Investments in parent education would give families tools to better reinforce instructional strategies and expectations at home. Students deserve schools that respect them enough to place high expectations on them and demand accountability for participation and academic effort. Teachers need time and tools to focus on each student's progress so that additional assistance can be provided as soon as a student demonstrates he is struggling. After-school and summer programs would provide students opportunities for additional instruction to come up to grade level.

-- Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis


Studies show that quality teaching is the most important factor in improving student achievement. Yet Oregon does not provide enough resources or time for professional development. If Oregon is serious about improving student achievement, it must invest in effective instruction. Teachers need support to develop their professional skills so they can more effectively identify what each student needs to be successful, monitor individual progress and modify instruction accordingly.

-- Beth Gerot, Eugene school board member

 

 ADVOCATES

One thing? Easy. High expectations. High expectations for districts and school boards in the form of higher state standards. High expectations for principals as leaders. High expectations for teachers as educators. High expectations for kids of every ethnic backgrounds and family income level. When everyone in a school community believes that all kids can learn, an amazing thing happens: All kids learn. Outstanding Oregon schools prove it every day: from Nyssa Elementary School to Forest Grove High School, from Lane Middle School in Portland to Merrill Elementary in Klamath. Let's start by saying we can do better for Oregon kids.

-- Sue Levin, executive director, Stand for Children, Oregon chapter


Provide holistic support to each and every student. A public/private partnership that allows teachers to teach, and others to provide the social service needs that so many of our students and families have. Put your last name on every student, and watch how things begin to improve for the better.

-- Tony Hopson Sr., president and founder, Self Enhancement Inc.

 

Teacher quality is a key. We need to add rigor and fairness to our teacher-evaluation processes, identify those teachers who are especially effective in improving student achievement, and reward them -- financially -- for working in schools with deep challenges.

-- John Tapogna, president, ECONorthwest

(Enact) state and local policies that support highly effective teaching in each classroom. Research shows that assigning effective teachers five years in a row to a class of disadvantaged children could close the achievement gap between those students and their peers. We have to give districts the time and resources to create local plans to recruit, develop, place, reward and retain highly effective teachers.

-- Sue Hildick, president, Chalkboard Project


Close the achievement gap when and where it begins. Offer high-quality early education and development opportunities beginning prenatally and through age 5. Follow with full-day kindergarten so children enter first grade ready for success and have a much higher likelihood of graduating from high school. High-quality early childhood development programs, especially for low-income and other at-risk children, are the most cost-effective way to improve student performance and lifelong outcomes. Oregon already has successful early childhood programs in place that should be expanded to serve all eligible children and better integrated with elementary schools.

-- Swati Adarkar, executive director, Children's Institute


The first thing you do is find and support a skilled principal who is a great leader of people. Over time, great principals find ways to attract inspired teachers and give them the tools and data they need to succeed. They use good data, good evaluation systems and good professional development resources. They attract teachers who embrace a challenging school environment and, when necessary, they will move out teachers who are not able to get results for our kids. We need strong, bold leadership in this state and the courage to drive reform and improvement from the executive branch of state government to each of our school buildings and classrooms.

-- Doug Stamm, executive director, Meyer Memorial Trust


The education system of the future must be one that provides a full array of comprehensive offerings- with educators that provide rigorous, relevant and culturally responsive curricula. Even with all of these offerings and options this system will not be perfect until it refuses to function like islands. My utopian education system partners with and engages social service agencies that seek to radically transform the lives of the children and families they work for. The education system of the future will have laboratories that prepare students for the world stage while allowing them to dream of a better world.

    -- Charles McGee, executive director, Black Parent Initiative

   
Great leaders. The best thing we can do for kids in low-performing schools is ensure they have a well-trained, supported, effective principal and teacher team that truly believe all children can learn. Then we should let that team do what they do best - teach kids.

    -- Dana Hepper, Oregon advocacy director, Stand for Children

 

Newsflash! So-called "low performing" schools tend to be in low-income communities. Thus, school reform and community development should be integrated and coordinated. What better way for Oregon to align such efforts than around the goal of sustainability? This will require the transformation of industrial-age institutions- including education- to produce what Peter Senge calls "systems citizens." Low-performing schools should be treated as laboratories. Challenge them and their respective communities to lead the way in transforming factory-style schools to 21st century learning communities where all stakeholders are engaged in creating the conditions to prepare our children for a sustainable future.

    -- Gary Obermeyer, founder, Learning Options, Southeast Portland

    
Research shows that the most significant factor in raising student achievement is the teacher in the classroom. If we turn this research into action and provide every teacher the resources and support they need to be highly effective, then we will raise achievement for all students. The first step is for state and local policies to define effective teaching and align teacher preparation, recruitment, development, placement, evaluation and recognition around those definitions. Oregon must invest in highly effective teaching to support the personal and academic success of each student.

-- Kate Dickson, vice president for education policy, Chalkboard Project 

 

 PUBLIC

I suggest adding two required subjects to the curriculum of Oregon middle schools, senior high schools: speech, for future school success, and adulthood; personal finance, for preparation for adulthood.

In addition, all teachers teach in their class, regardless of subject matter, the "whole child": correct spelling, punctuation, neatness, punctuality, lunch room manners, diet, good health habits, respect for teachers and staff, and all students, and rules and regulations.

And teachers include in their teaching of subject matter a unit on "how to study and good study habits."

-- Cal Hersey, Fairview


 The one thing Oregon could do differently to support low- performing schools is to do a better job in supporting families in need: in need of food, in need of clothing, in need of day care, in need of jobs, in need of parenting support in the home. Until we can take care of our neediest families we can't take care of our neediest students. Teachers cannot do it all, and it's a lame excuse to say that a child's family circumstance has no impact on their learning. Oregon needs to step up to the plate and support all families.

-- Barbara Bagg, Southeast Portland


The school classrooms should include a video camera. The video would allow: 1. Students who missed school, or did not fully understand the subject, to review the class at a later time in a library or at home, with or without a tutor; 2. Students to pose online questions on what they did not understand; 3. Teachers to review how they come across presenting information to the students; 4. Accurate recording of any disruptions in a class.

-- Michael Bonham, Sherwood


More individual attention! Reduced class size and/or a trained aide in each class. A teacher usually works alone with around 30 students, ranging from slow to brilliant and well-adjusted to disturbed. We know of the constant great effort our teachers put forth in every way to meet students' individual needs -- including uncounted extra hours. We don't need more genius teachers or amazing plans. We need more adults per student.

-- Raul and Elizabeth Martinez, Northeast Portland


Move away from a time-based to a standards-based system. Do away with grade levels (and grades) which advance students based on seat time and subjective grading criteria. Students should advance when they meet the basic criteria of skill sets they are supposed to master. Students need to be taught at their individual level and pace regardless of age or grade.

-- Mike Murphy, Northeast Portland


From the students: Speak English or learn. Respect teachers and school rules. Zero tolerance for bullying and drugs. Cellular phones turned off in class. Decent dress code. Must attend classes. Do their homework. TV and games monitored at home. Pass end-of-year tests and exams in order to move to higher level. Attend summer school if flunking those exams.

From the teachers: No strikes at the beginning of the school year. Contracts must be done and signed by September. Take turns teaching summer school as necessary. Hold a two-hour study after school for students whose parents are unable to help with homework. No overtime.

-- Francoise Dubrulle, Hillsboro


Home visits by teachers to each student's home. You'd need to pay teachers extra to do this-- perhaps have them do it during the summer. Jonathan Kozol did this as a young teacher. Engaging the families is critically important; many won't necessarily come to parent-teacher conferences at school.

-- Steve Novick, Northeast Portland


Equal opportunity. The money currently spent per student should be given to the family via a student/state account. He spends that money on the school of his choice. The difference goes to his college account, which earns interest. The student, to continue, must pass a yearly exam. This will give each student incentive to study and learn, knowing he will have his college paid for, which will allow these young people to start a debt-free life. This is important to especially the poor [families and children] who usually have zero resources, which will give a great incentive for caring parents.

-- Fred Starkey, Springfield


I suspect the foundation needed for reform may begin with the following consideration: There was a time when a visitor, walking into a school, might see, displayed on the hallway walls, the aims, skills to be taught and the accomplishments of which the school was proudest. They might be geometry, literature, art, science, penmanship, history, arithmetic, spelling and so on. Today, one is far more likely to see empathy, commitment, cooperation, enthusiasm, creativity, risk-taking, appreciation, confidence, caring, open-mindedness and communication.

-- Louis Sargent, Northwest Portland


The focal point of education centers upon reading. Whatever the study-- math, science, social studies, history-- all involve reading and comprehension of what is written. Many great things have been said about phonics as a learning tool. If reading skills can be improved, test scores will likely improve also. Many students graduate without the ability to read. Any school reform should include phonics instruction. Oregon needs to break the mold and start over with a complete reform. Phonics is the starting point.

-- Doug Dahl, Southwest Portland


Social promotion is the main issue that must be corrected in education today. Whether in low-performing or higher-achieving schools, we simply cannot allow students to be pushed along with their peers while not performing at the proper levels. (Example: A student should never be in sixth or seventh grade, reading at the fourth grade or below level.) It is imperative that education develop a program for matriculation. Students build self-esteem through their accomplishments. Hold them accountable; they can and will do much more than current expectations.

-- Terry D. Lorentson, Sandy


1. Caps on class sizes at all levels, so teachers have the opportunity to really work with students of all ability levels. Additionally, any regular classroom with special education students in it should have a full-time aide and lower class cap. 2. Higher standards for licensing teachers. State standards are woefully inadequate. As one example, examine closely how teachers are trained in English syntax and grammar. Very few teachers can actually teach students the type of sentence-fluency elements that are tested in the state writing exams. How are students supposed to "get it" when even the teachers don't?

-- C.E. Harding. Monmouth


School should be year-around. Eleven weeks in school, two weeks off -- and repeat the system. We are not a farm-based country anymore. Students should move forward after completing the required pre-set standards/
levels for the term. This would help us catch up to the other leading nations.

-- Mark Pauletto, McMinnville


English Language Learners should be taught with the immersion philosophy and not in a pull-out program. Teachers are taught to use best practices when teaching ELL students, which are best practices for all students. Put the ELL teachers in the classrooms where they are needed in a time of budget issues. Test scores will not suffer.

-- Debbie Lorentson, Sandy

 

Schools are organized by age/grade lockstep and insist that students must be grouped by age. This industrial revolution model of school organization doesn't work. Schools need to group students by achievement with frequent regrouping as they make progress. Classes need to be grouped across grade levels. The needs of the students must take precedence over the logistical ease of the arbitrary assumption that all children born between certain dates have similar background, skills and needs. How could an individualized system be more costly than the current system that fails to adequately educate students ?

-- Judith C. Smith, Tigard



    Inform parents about the studies on the impact of television on children's learning. Even educational TV has been proved to be unhealthy for preschoolers. If this information was presented at birth, parents might replace screen time with books and other creative activities. Child care workers should also receive this training. A unified campaign through prenatal classes, hospital birth packets, pediatrician visits, billboards, commercials, and news stories potentially could revolutionize the attention spans of children entering school, saving them untold hardship in learning as well as saving the school districts money.

    -- Sara Dunlop, Canby

     
Involve the parents of those students in their children's education. The parents need to understand what is expected of their child and encourage and assist their child in meeting those expectations. That should be the first in a number of steps necessary to improve student performance.

    - George Benson, Lake Oswego

     
Recognize that public education can only promise students an equal opportunity and not an equal outcome. Furthermore, the society that funds public education does not require every student to excel in their studies. It then becomes the student's own self-interest to take advantage of the opportunity to learn at public expense.

    - Roger Edwards, Gresham

     
    Seismic retrofitting of our schools is essential. All the improved learning will be for naught if our 45,000 children are devastated in our buildings that are all professionally judged to not perform adequately to save lives in the event of an earthquake. If we close any of our school buildings during redistricting, it needs to be done simultaneously with plans and grant applications to retrofit the building so we can move children back in a few years to a new and safe building.

    - Anne F. O'Neill, Southwest Portland

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