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MailTribune.com
  • Advances: Sams Valley Elementary, spared from closure, makes comeback

    Sams Valley Elementary School, slated for closure in 2011, makes a comeback
  • Walking along the wet outside walkways of Sams Valley Elementary School Friday, Principal Christine Beck said she was proud of the advances the rural school has made in the two years since it was considered for closure.
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  • Walking along the wet outside walkways of Sams Valley Elementary School Friday, Principal Christine Beck said she was proud of the advances the rural school has made in the two years since it was considered for closure.
    "I think it would be hard for any community," said Beck, "any school — it's a piece of the community."
    Since budget cuts threatened the school's existence in 2011, enrollment has shot up 50 students and test scores have improved remarkably, according to Samantha Steele, the Central Point School District's director of education and its future superintendent.
    Beck, who has been principal of the K-5 school on Table Rock Road between Gold Hill and Eagle Point since 2009, remembers when the Central Point School District first talked of closing the then 200-student campus in February of 2011.
    Faced with what the district believed to be a $4.5 million budget shortfall for the upcoming year, the School Board proposed cuts that included closing the campus, shipping younger students by bus to Patrick Elementary and older students to Hanby Middle School, both in Gold Hill.
    "It wasn't a decision that the board wanted to make," said Paulie Ziemann, a third grade teacher at Sams Valley. "Picking up and moving was a big fear for me."
    The district held a series of community meetings to discuss the possible closure in the spring of 2011 and estimated that closing Sams Valley could save the district between $600,000 and $1 million a year in equalized class sizes, reduced staff and building maintenance costs.
    But in April of that year, as the community waited to hear the final decision, the district's business office discovered a bookkeeping error that uncovered $1.6 million in federal funding that officials hadn't realized was available.
    School Board member June Brock said the accounting error was embarrassing, but the extra funds kept Sams Valley open and gave the school another year to prove to the district that the campus should remain open.
    "I think it provided us with an opportunity to look at our practices," said Beck.
    A community group quickly formed, visiting Ruch Elementary, a rural school outside Jacksonville that also faced closure during budget cuts in the Medford School District.
    Sams Valley took tips from Ruch and its community group, working to strengthen its science program and attract homeschooled students from the Sams Valley area.
    In a corner of the school's science lab Friday, second-grader Cody Neuschwander assembled an anemometer — a device for measuring wind speed.
    As Cody and classmate Chase Weaver blew on the plastic cups attached to the device, the cups began spinning faster.
    "I'm a little dizzy now," said Cody after about 20 seconds of blowing like the wind.
    Cody said he remembers two years ago when his teachers told him that the school might close.
    "That was horrible. This is the best school I ever went to," said Cody, 7, whose older brother also attends Sams Valley.
    Summer Owen, a parent who is also an instructional aide in first, second and third grade classrooms at Sams Valley, said she was relieved when the school that her two children attend remained open.
    Owen said when the closure was proposed parents talked about pulling their children from the district and homeschooling them rather than lengthening their bus ride.
    Beck said that by strengthening the science program and focusing on best instructional practices, the school has been able to raise its test scores.
    A new growth score measured by the Oregon Department of Education showed that overall scores at the school since the 2010-11 school year had been raised significantly over a two-year period.
    Developed as part of Oregon's waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law, the testing measured 100 percent growth for Sams Valley's subgroups, which include minorities and economically disadvantaged students.
    At least 70 percent of students at Sams Valley are considered economically disadvantaged, with 30 percent identified as homeless, which can include living in a car, with friends or camping.
    The school's overall academic achievement and growth, coupled with its subgroup growth ranked Sams Valley at a level 4 — out of a possible 5 — under the state's new accountability system. That put it in the top 13 percent of all schools in the state, according to Steele.
    Steele said the school's scores are particularly impressive because of the large number of economically disadvantaged and homeless students enrolled.
    "It's certainly something we're very proud of," said Beck.
    The school's enrollment shot up to 245 students this year. Beck said she believes the enrollment fluctuation between now and the 2010-11 school year is fairly coincidental, as there don't seem to be any trends for why families have moved in and out of the area or decided to attend the school.
    Though the school's growth score is impressive, Beck said the actual test scores aren't extremely high, and that students and staff have room to grow academically.
    With state funding expected to remain fairly steady for the upcoming biennium, staff members at Sams Valley think the school will remain open for the foreseeable future.
    "Right now, we're seeing real stable funding," said Beck. "But I think everything's a possibility."
    Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.
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