Dismantling an Exceptional School

Yesterday I was part of an accreditation team visiting a nearby small high school.  Everything about the school was exceptional.  The building and grounds were well groomed and unlittered.  Students made eye contact with visitors, smiled and held doors open for us.  Teachers checked for understanding regularly using a variety of techniques.  Hallways were empty during class time.  The school was rated Outstanding by the state in 2009-10 for excellent test scores and graduation rates.

When we talked with students, they raved about their school, about the opportunities and course choices and especially about how hard their teachers and administrators worked to help each and every one of them succeed.  They showed tremendous pride in their school and were convinced it was the best place to learn.

Two student quotes stood out:
"This school makes me want to give back to my community" from a senior girl.
"This school helps you find your inner strengths early" from a burly athlete who shared his poetry with us.
I worked at this high school eight years of my career and everything about it was improved from the days I was there.   I love this school for its special students and community and the way it has always felt like a family. 

Yet this high school is in the heart of a community ridiculed by folks in Southern Oregon and has a reputation as a drug haven.  The reputation is unfair and offends many of us but it is there.  The community suffers from high poverty and 82% of students qualify for free or reduced lunches (2nd highest rate of all 361 Oregon high schools).  The school district has the second highest rate of child poverty in Oregon and this is the highest poverty of the three high schools.  Yet it is a calm and peaceful place where teachers commit to stay.

It was heartwarming visiting, seeing, hearing and singing the praises of Illinois Valley High School.  For all of the chatter about low-performing schools and all the verbiage about helping children of poverty find good schools, no one has stepped up to save the one shining example in our community.  I could elaborate on all the ways the principal and staff have invested heart and soul and especially vision in their school.  I won't here; perhaps later.  Instead, I have to add the saddest, most disturbing part of our visit.

On the day of the accreditation visit, several teachers received R.I.F. notices from the district.  A school with a mere 18.5 FTE will be reduced to 14 FTE next year (including Special Ed).  When I taught there, there were over 25 teachers, 450 students and some teachers were on carts because there weren't enough classrooms.  Now the school has about 370 students. Given the outstanding hiring the principal has done and the staff she has nurtured with great professional development, high expectations and effusive support, this is tragic.

A great school is being dismantled.  Already the school operates on a shoestring.  The district high schools are the only high schools in Oregon with a 5-period trimester schedule that asks teachers to teach every period, a previous year's budget solution.  All other trimester schools assign teachers 4 classes and a prep period.

High schools are not highly regarded these days.  In this district, 60% of staff reductions in a tough budget year will come from the 30% of students in grades 9-12.  In the previous 3 years, 75% of staff reductions came from high schools.  Enrollment is down in all 14 district schools but maintaining best at the high schools.

I wrote last week about the value of the comprehensive high school.  Even this small school offers a comprehensive curriculum including auto mechanics, music, art, computer classes, Spanish and several A.P. courses.  The loss of 5 teachers will devastate not just course offerings but teacher effectiveness, their ability to continue differentiating for a wide range of needs and their ability to offer high-quality experiences to manageable numbers of students. 

What is happening to public schools nationwide is depressing.  The demolition of one this successful is unconscionable.


  1. Is this just at IVHS or throughout the county? Are the other 2 county High Schools facing similar cutbacks? I would assume they're all getting cut, but it's especially tragic at a school with such demographics as described here. These kind of cuts are always justifiable in the minds of the bean counters, since they are only cutting back, not cutting off. The school will remain open, students will be taught, and so on. They refuse to look at the less tangible effects that these cuts make on the overall education of the student, that they're actually contributing to a weakened school system and much weaker students. I fully understand the fiscal constraints the district is in, but can't help but wonder if the state bureaucracy that forces these cuts, is also subjecting itself to the same austerity measures. Either way, the prioritizing being done here is so short sighted, ignoring the long term effects on the student and the community.

  2. Both NVHS and HVHS are facing similar cuts: from 24 to 18 at NVHS and from 28 to 21 at HVHS.


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