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Eagle Point principals have eyes in the classroom

A principal's top job is in the classroom, according to Eagle Point School District Superintendent Cynda Rickert.

Administrators are always looking to calibrate and improve educational goals, Rickert said. To do that, she and her district's principals are upping their classroom time to support, supervise and evaluate teachers so students can receive the best education possible, she said.

Four years into the outside-the-office principal program, Rickert says it's working for the district. And the proof is in the state's testing scores, she said.

"I'm proud of everybody," Rickert said. "We've had really steady gains in state grading."

Eagle Point High School was one of 12 Jackson County schools ranked "outstanding" by the Oregon Department of Education, up from seven schools last year.

Rickert is seeing improvements district wide, with higher scores in reading, writing and science in every elementary grade. Math scores didn't improve, but only because math testing was changed and the standards were raised since the previous year, she said.

Rickert has been wandering Eagle Point campuses each week since she began with the district seven years ago. Rickert acknowledged some principals and teachers initially felt "under the gun" with the observational aspect of the program. But the point is to effect positive change for the students, she said.

Engagement and posted objectives are two key factors principals are looking for when they enter a teacher's classroom, Rickert said.

"If kids are engaged, they're learning," Rickert said, adding that having learning targets clearly posted in the classroom, which are aligned with lesson plans, help students reach educational goals.

White City Elementary Principal Ginny Walker spends as much time as possible in classrooms — and in proximity to the teachers, she said.

"This allows us to have richer, more meaningful conversations around students. What is working well? What do we need to improve?"

Walker's initial goal was to spend a minimum of six hours a week in classrooms, and she's upping that to 16 hours, she said.

"We recognize the need to have our finger on the pulse of what's happening in order to be in a continual improvement cycle," Walker said. "(Teachers) don't shut down (their) doors and teach alone. This job is way too complex."

Many of Walker's students already face educational challenges. Eighty-six percent of the students live in families that are at or below the poverty line. Forty-seven percent are Latino, and 38 percent of those students are learning to speak, read and write English, she said.

Several years ago, White City Elementary School was struggling in the area of math. They were following the state's curriculum, but the students were still falling behind. After spending time in the classroom watching students and conferring with teachers, it was determined the students needed smaller classes and more time to learn their lessons.

Students who were fairing well in math were kept on task with adult helpers who were brought into the rooms. Those who struggled received more intensive attention from the teacher, Walker said.

"Kids who get it fast need to be challenged at the next level. But they also tend to be the kids who can self-manage their time," Walker said.

Administrators begin their careers teaching in classrooms. Described as "professional, intelligent and research-minded," administrators are trained to understand the state's educational requirements and to seek out "best practices solutions" for students, Walker said.

"We don't have time to experiment with a shotgun approach," Walker said. "We need to know weekly in order to ... make changes for kids who are getting it, faster and more efficiently. If we're not in the classroom ... we can't help adjust it."

Rickert said a major factor in the district's success has been its choice to continue employing teaching instructors, who are former teachers who help enforce curriculum and support current teachers. Each campus in the district has at least one teaching instructor, according to Rickert.

"We believe we have teachers we can learn a lot from, across all levels," Rickert said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.