Timber Town Turnaround: An Interview with 2007 Superintendent of the Year Krista Parent
When Krista Parent arrived in rural Cottage Grove, Oregon in the mid 'eighties, it was a timber town whose students regularly dropped out of high school to work in the lumber mills. Academic achievement was not among the community's top priorities. Now, over 20 years later, students in Cottage Grove's South Lane School District perform well above state averages in assessments of reading and mathematics, and the district's high school graduates more than 95% of its students.
We were recently lucky enough to interview Parent about how she and her colleagues at South Lane worked with the community to transform the district's schools. Parent describes how South Lane's educators reached out to their community to transform the academic culture. They attended meetings of civic organizations, parent groups, church groups and other groups that had a stake in the schools' success as the lumber mills fell on hard times. Parent and her colleagues won community members' trust by listening to--and honoring--their aspirations and expectations for their children and their schools.
According to Parent, these community conversations helped shape a powerful school reform strategy. District and school staff at all levels collaborate closely to improve teaching and learning in every district classroom. Parent credits the district's relentless focus on literacy with its impressive academic gains, but she is careful to note that South Lane has not narrowed the academic curriculum. Quite the contrary. South Lane schools have broadened their academic offerings, introduced more challenging courses, and improved students' hands-on learning opportunities.
It is always challenging to create a brief "highlights reel" from a rich and compelling 25-minute interview. Still, we managed to boil Parent's comments down to about 5 1/2 minutes. (You can read a transcript of these highlights below):
Still, we encourage you to listen to the entire 25-minute interview, which we've broken out into nine bite-sized sections, below. Parent's account of South Lane's success is just too good--too detailed and too enlightening--to chop into a five-minute mash-up. She tells an inspiring story:
Broadening the Curriculum (3:08)
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Describe the kinds of changes you've witnessed at South Lane since you first came.
PARENT: The community has changed as a whole. Before, it was really a timber town. There wasn't a culture of academics being important, and the expectation wasn't there for kids to go on to further education. And that's completely changed. Today, we don't have that timber economy here.
I think a good indicator of how it's changed: we tried to build a new high school for a long time, and we had three bond elections in the '90s where we just basically lost by a landslide. I think that was a real indicator of how people felt about the school district. There was a lack of trust in what was going on and it just wasn't seen as important.
Then, in 2000, we had another bond election and we lost by a hundred votes. We came back 18 months later and we won with about 70 percent "yes" to 30 percent "no." And we built a $27 million brand-new high school that's kind of the envy of this part of the state right now.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: So do you attribute the success in the bond election purely to the change in economics and change in attitudes, or was there a pretty concerted effort on the part of the district and the community to get things to change?
PARENT: I'm sure it's much more complex than this, but it was a very concerted effort to bring back trust and respect from the community for what was going on in the school district.
Over about a two-year period of time, we were in every building on a regular basis. We were at every parent club meeting. We were in all the civic organization meetings. We got on the ministerial circuit, visiting all the ministers and churches in town.
[We] basically had a lot of conversations focused on listening for us, on what is it that they wanted from their school district. And where did they see the deficiencies and what would they like their school system to look like, three to five years out?
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What kinds of academic changes have you witnessed?
PARENT: We've had the opportunity, through a new school, to have a really broad array of professional technical courses, from drafting to engineering technology to cabinetry - those kinds of hands-on choices. But not expecting these kids just to go right out into the world of work - a lot of these kids are going into the engineering field and going on to university-level work as well.
You can really see [the changes] when you walk in [the high school] now. Now you walk in that school, no matter what time of day, kids that are in the hallway are appropriate, kids that are in classes are really engaged. There's diverse curriculum offerings, there's good collaboration going on - teachers are talking to one another. There's a lot of cross-content area, integrated curriculum efforts going on.
We put a lot of things in place around literacy, all the way through twelfth grade, and I honestly believe that's the critical piece of everything that we've done.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: So what kinds of things have you done specifically in order to bring literacy and reading to learn through the twelfth grade?
PARENT: For one thing, we put our money where our mouth was in terms of resources. Every school has a reading specialist. Some of our schools also have literacy coaches. The distinction for us is that reading specialists work more with the students, although they do work with staff somewhat, and literacy coaches work predominantly with staff.
So we have literacy coaches out at the secondary level that are model teaching for teachers in all content areas, whether it be science or engineering technology. They're doing model lessons in terms of how you use good literacy-based strategies as a part of your regular instruction.
Sometimes they side-by-side teach or co-teach with content area teachers, to make sure that they've really got the right literacy strategies in place. They do a lot of professional development for staff on a regular basis. Like every staff meeting at the secondary level now starts with a couple of teachers sharing a new literacy strategy that they've tried. They name the strategy, they give a brief description of it, they tell how they've used it, and they share it with their colleagues.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: I was wondering if you could give us a stronger sense of how you structured your collaborative environment to make sure that teachers really do work together in teams.
PARENT: I think the modeling happened with the administrative team, so when we get everybody together - principals, assistant principals, central office administrators and our administrative interns, who happen to be teachers in our district - our time together twice a month is completely focused on teaching and learning.
Usually, we're reading stuff together - we've read numerous books together - and then when we come together we have facilitated conversations around what we read and what the new learning is, and how that's going to be played out in terms of action. So it's more than just learning, it's, "Let's actually put it to work."
So I think we've modeled that, and what happens from there is principals then take their learning and what we've modeled with them, so they've created that same atmosphere in their schools. So many of the school staffs are reading together, learning together, having facilitated conversations.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: And from your descriptions, it seems like you've actually integrated reading into many of the content areas.
PARENT: Right. And, you know, that whole notion that everybody's a reading teacher was a little bit scary at first, but all content areas are saying "how does my instruction need to be different so that I make sure that all kids can access the content that [I'm] trying to get across?"
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- Actress/Mathematician Danica McKellar on girls and math
- Best Selling Author Kenneth C. Davis on engaging with history
- Nurse Practitioner Jennifer Danielson on providing health care at school
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
Excellence is the Standard
At Pierce County High School in rural southeast Georgia, the graduation rate has gone up 31% in seven years. Teachers describe their collaboration as the unifying factor that drives the school’s improvement. Learn more...
- Ed Prep Matters
- PTA's One Voice
- ISTE Connects
- NASBE's On the Road
- PDK Blog
- AACTE's President's Perspective
- The EDifier
- School Board News Today
- Legal Clips
- Learning Forward’s PD Watch
- NAESP's Principals' Office
- NASSP's Principal's Policy Blog
- The Principal Difference
- ASCA Scene
- Always Something
- NSPRA: Social School Public Relations
- Transforming Learning
- AASA's The Leading Edge
- AASA Connects (formerly AASA's School Street)
- NEA Today
- Angles on Education
- Lily's Blackboard
What Else We're Reading
- Advancing the Teaching Profession
- The Answer Sheet
- Edutopia's Blogs
- Politics K-12
- U.S. Department of Education Blog
- John Wilson Unleashed
- The Core Knowledge Blog
- This Week in Education
- Inside School Research
- Teacher Leadership Today
- On the Shoulders of Giants
- Teacher in a Strange Land
- Teach Moore
- The Tempered Radical
- The Educated Reporter
- Taking Note
- Character Education Partnership Blog
- Why I Teach