Eugene Register Guard
By Alisha Roemeling
March 24, 2018
A few dozen students from across Lane County met with state legislators Thursday morning to share their thoughts and concerns about school curriculum, culture and challenges.
The 14 legislators make up the Joint Interim Committee on Student Success, a group tasked with exploring the best practices in Oregon schools and identifying gaps that limit student success in an effort to figure out how to reverse the state’s low graduation rate and improve student success across the state. The committee members were selected to serve on the panel by Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney.
The legislators also visited several Lane County schools, talked with local educators and heard from community members at a public forum Thursday evening.
Oregon has the third-worst high school graduation rate in the nation. Only 76.7 percent of students in the state received a diploma within four years in 2017, according to data released Thursday by the state Department of Education.
Much of Thursday’s conversation between the students and legislators centered on mental health, class sizes and resources for students, with several students telling legislators that their No. 1 concern was access to counselors and other mental health resources.
Lilliana Hernandez, a junior at Springfield High School, said that although she earns good grades and has had a mostly positive experience at school, she’s watched some of her friends struggle with depression, thoughts of suicide and substance abuse.
“They’re smart kids,” Hernandez said. “But people just don’t connect with the counselors. They either don’t know how to or don’t feel like the counselors will help them.”
Hernandez said that there’s a counselor for each grade level at the school but that one person per class isn’t enough. “I don’t feel like the counselors have enough time for everyone.”
Cayle Walker, an eighth-grade Creswell Middle School student, told legislators that his school seems to have a good handle on bullying, but he worries about drug use.
“I’m starting to see more and more of it,” Walker said, referring to marijuana use. “Vaping has become a huge thing, even at school.”
Walker, 14, suggested legislators provide more funding for sports and other school activities to combat drug use.
“I’ve been blessed to grow up with a good home life with parents who are very present, but I think that for a lot of kids, sports help them to stay focused and to keep their grades up. A lot of kids stay out of trouble because they’re in sports, and it keeps them wanting to come to school every day.”
Class sizes, program options and pathways to graduation also were noted by students as major concerns.
The group’s Lane County visit was the first in an eight-month statewide tour which will include stops in Eastern, Southern and Central Oregon, the Portland metro area, the Willamette Valley and the south coast.
Thursday’s conversation with students at the Lane Educational Service District building on Highway 99 was just the first event of the day. Legislators also visited a number of schools, including Mohawk High School in Marcola, Hamlin Middle School in Springfield, Churchill High School in Eugene, and Kalapuya High School in west Eugene, among others.
At the end of the months-long tour, committee members will be expected to develop and present a plan to improve student success, including a budget proposal. The panel plans to meet monthly and finish its work by January 2019.
Better funding wanted
Thursday’s itinerary ended with a public forum in the Sheldon High School auditorium, where community members were invited to share their own concerns about education in Lane County and in Oregon.
About 100 people showed up to share their thoughts.
The consensus? Education needs better funding, for hundreds of reasons.
The majority of those who offered testimony urged legislators to provide more money for courses in career technical education, or CTE. CTE courses include classes such as construction technology, business management, early childhood development, computer sciences, robotics, engineering, culinary arts, drafting and more.
Attendees also urged state legislators to fully fund Measure 98.
Measure 98, which was passed by voters in the November 2016, allocates more funding for CTE classes, which provide college and high school credit, and support students identified as being at risk of dropping out. The measure also aims to significantly raise graduation rates.
Others said early education programs, outdoor schools, special education opportunities and alternative programs should be prioritized.
Audience members asked the politicians to put their “polarizing political arguments” aside and come together to find solutions to education issues in Oregon.
Adequate nutritional options and mental health programs were mentioned repeatedly.
Tibor Bessko, a counselor at Churchill High School, said that graduating on time and earning good grades were at the bottom of the list of priorities for many students at the school and throughout Lane County, as they’re dealing with much heavier problems such as suicide, depression, a lack of family support and more.
Bessko said Churchill students have voiced concerns about whether their families would be deported, if they would live through the year, whether there would be a nuclear war, or how sex trafficking might affect their lives.
He mentioned the five adolescent suicides that have occurred in Lane County since mid-February.
The mother of one of the students who died by suicide in February, Roxanne Wilson, spoke at the hearing. She urged the committee to fund more mental health services for students. The mother said her daughter, a 14-year-old girl, attempted to talk to her counselor about a week before her death, but that the counselor was inundated with scheduling work she had to tend to.
“Our students need more access to mental health services and support,” Wilson said. “I’ve been asking our youth recently about how they’re feeling, and almost all of them report feelings of hopelessness, sadness and feelings of worthlessness.”
A few people also asked the state legislators to “put their money where their mouth is” when it comes to educational priorities and find a fix to the Public Employees Retirement System, or PERS, which has a $25.3 billion unfunded liability. The bulk of the PERS problem stems from unrealistic promises made to public employees, particularly those covered by Tiers 1 and 2 of PERS, in past decades.
A series of meetings similar to Thursday’s events are scheduled to take place across the state in the coming months. For a schedule of upcoming meetings, visit rgne.ws/2GfL7XD.