Bidding farewell

There have been good days and bad during Di Chiro's 13 years as Ashland schools boss
Retiring Ashland School District Superintendent Juli Di Chiro is greeted by Glenna Stiles, principal of Helman Elementary School, during her surprise retirement party at the Historic Ashland Armory Thursday. Di Chiro led the school district for 13 years.

People who know Juli Di Chiro only as the serious, suit-wearing superintendent of the Ashland School District would have been surprised to see her Thursday night.

Entering the Historic Ashland Armory in a sundress and sandals, she looked like the carefree, retired educator she will be in a few weeks.

Do the math

The Ashland School District has changed since Juli Di Chiro took over as superintendent in 2000.

According to a report prepared last year by the Portland State University Population Research Center, enrollment has dropped 16 percent since 2001 because of Ashland's aging demographic, younger adults having fewer children, and the recession.

Here are some figures:

  • Fall 2001-02 K-12 enrollment: 3,255
  • Fall 2012-13 K-12 enrollment: 2,721
  • Between 2000 and 2010, the population within the district grew by 2.6 percent, from 23,596 to 24,218.
  • In the 1990s, the district's school-age population (5 to 17) grew by

9 percent. In the 2000s, it shrank and continues to do so.

  • The school-age population as a share of the total city population decreased from 15.3 percent in 2000 to 12.6 percent in 2010, when people older than 50 accounted for 44 percent of the population.
  • Although elementary, middle and high schools have lost enrollment in the past decade, the biggest losses in kindergarten through fifth grades occurred in the 1990s and early 2000s and has since been stable or increasing. In 2011-12, the district's middle grades had their first increase in 16 years, but ninth through 12th grade declined for the 11th time in 12 years.
  • About 4.5 percent of the district's children are homeschooled.

Surrounded by school principals and school board members at her surprise retirement party, Di Chiro, 63, was able to shake off the pressures of running a district with dwindling revenues and tougher educational expectations from the state and federal government.

The 13 years Di Chiro has been in charge have been tough ones for the district. Enrollment declined by 16 percent because of Ashland's aging demographic, younger adults having fewer children and the recession.

School revenues, which are based on enrollment, decreased during all but one of her years.

Balancing the budget with less was a challenge and sometimes controversial, yet Di Chiro was named Oregon Superintendent of the Year in 2009 because of improved student academic achievements and teacher training under her direction.

"That was a good day," she says.

There also was the other type of day.

During her tenure, she angered parents when she closed Briscoe Elementary in 2003 and Lincoln Elementary in 2005, then restructured the remaining schools because of dropping enrollment.

She says shuttering the schools was the hardest thing she had to do in her career.

"People wanted everything to stay the same, but their perceptions were no longer true," she says. "Despite it all, we were able to keep schools marching along in a positive direction, and the kids are doing well."

More recently, parents with students at John Muir School, a natural science and art magnet school, objected to consolidating grade levels and other changes she made without consulting them. Teachers and parents called her decisions hasty and wondered why she didn't leave organizational arrangements for the 2013-14 school year up to the new superintendent.

Then, her last public speech as superintendent at Ashland High School's graduation ceremony on June 1 drew criticism from a few attendees for being too negative.

In the speech, she said she started her job when the Class of 2013 was in kindergarten.

She then recounted that over the years they have heard news of terrorist attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, housing and stock market collapses, and the Penn State University football sex scandal.

"You would think that children growing up amid that tumult would be cynical and unsure of their place in the world," she told the crowd spread in front of Lithia Park's Butler Bandshell. "But instead we have this amazing group of young people who have managed to triumph."

On Thursday morning in her office, Di Chiro acknowledged that her pragmatism, decisiveness and "hardheadedness" have created detractors.

Heidi Parker, who was a member of the school board for eight years, says, "Due to dwindling state funding, increasing employee costs and declining enrollment during Juli's entire tenure, there was at times an inherent tension in the relationship between the board, the district's needs and the superintendent.

"Despite having to make difficult choices," Parker adds, "I greatly respect Juli Di Chiro's professionalism, her intelligence, her dedication to teaching and learning, and have great appreciation for the long hours that she always put in."

Di Chiro said her proudest achievement was collaborating with her staff to align teacher evaluations with professional development.

She will finish out the month designing a long-range support system for effective teaching.

Then she will "pass the baton" to incoming Superintendent Jay W. Hummel, who says he is impressed with her sincerity and extensive instructional knowledge.

"Juli has focused on creating and maintaining quality learning opportunities for students, and she repeatedly emphasizes that this can not be accomplished without a talented and diverse staff," he says. "Juli's finest legacy may be the fact that she has been successful recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest educators, parents and patrons, and encouraging them to work together."

After retiring on June 28, she plans to give herself a year off, tending only to personal responsibilities and spending time with her husband of 36 years, Bob Di Chiro, a studio musician, and traveling to see their children, Amy, 32, Clayton, 30, and Gabe, 25.

Until she accepted the Ashland superintendent position in July 2000, the then-50-year-old had spent her career as an educator in California. She had worked since 1988 as a principal and then as director of standards and assessment in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

Although a few vocal Ashland parents said she was too bureaucratic and was trying to bring "big city sensibilities" to a small town, she says that Southern California was too "impersonal" and she always welcomed people approaching her in Ashland, even if they had a complaint.

When she decided to close Lincoln school, parents who disagreed with her posted signs on the road leading up to her house.

The majority of parents, however, appreciated her steady leadership, leaving Di Chiro to joke that her critics may have left town.

Terry Littleton, who was on the school board when Di Chiro was hired, says the superintendent has guided the district "with integrity and a clear sense of purpose."

Amy Amrhein, who now works as a field representative for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, served on the board for six years. She credits Di Chiro with getting local levies passed to support school athletic, art and club programs.

"Youth Activities Levy local options have since been revised to incorporate funding for core curriculum, proving voters' ... ongoing commitment to great schools," she says.

Susan Bacon of the Ashland Schools Foundation says Di Chiro has been helpful in raising money for innovative school programs that educate "the whole child."

"She thinks out of the box," says Bacon, "developing creative solutions when faced with serious issues like our many years of budget shortfalls, and she's not afraid to seize opportunities for our schools that come her way."

Di Chiro says she still has a role to play in helping to redefine the teacher of tomorrow, find new methods beyond exams to measure student achievement, and creating curriculum customized to prepare students in the "skills, abilities and habits of mind," such as critical thinking, collaboration and problem-solving for careers that perhaps have not even been invented.

But for now, she says, she wants to take a break from public responsibilities.

"I wanted to retire before I was unable to do a quality job," she says. "I have advised so many people to go out strong into retirement that I wanted to be sure I followed my own advice."


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