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School districts near window to apply for funds

When Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed her name on a portion of the Student Success Act in South Medford High School’s gym Aug. 26, 2019, the work for school districts expecting to receive additional funding was just beginning.

With the hotly contested $2 billion per biennium bill now law, school districts faced a new stack of tasks, many of which involved community outreach. Particularly in the case of the Student Investment Account (one of three accounts funded through the Student Success Act), the Oregon Department of Education requires school districts to demonstrate that the initiatives they’ll spend money on are what their communities asked for.

“I would be lying if I said it didn’t create some anxiety,” said Brent Barry, superintendent of the Phoenix-Talent School District.

His district, along with Central Point, Ashland and Medford, are administering recently passed construction bonds as they also construct their applications for the Student Investment Accounts.

“This has been a lot of time and organization and intentional outreach to be able to put a plan together,” Barry said. But, “the words that come to mind are, we’re hopeful.”

Districts will submit their final plans, complete with evidence of community outreach and metrics to track the effectiveness of their initiatives, to ODE beginning March 2 through April 15.

Each school district is eligible for a different amount of money. As with the State School Fund, it’s based on student population and the demographics of the students. The Student Investment Account also takes into account the poverty rates of each district.

Medford, with both the largest population and the highest poverty weighting, expects to get the largest amount of money in the region: $11,431,648, according to a January estimate from ODE.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Natalie Hurd, communications specialist for the district, in a text message. “The funds are also coming at a time where, through our strategic planning process, we’re thinking outside of the box and reimagining how we’re delivering education to all students in the (Medford School District).”

Central Point has the next largest expected amount: $3,808,083, followed by Eagle Point, Ashland and Phoenix-Talent.

Districts won’t get any of that money, however, if they don’t apply. To do that, they have to show the state that community input helped power their ideas to make their schools better.

In every school district, that has involved a different combination of outreach.

Brian Purnell, principal of Prospect Charter School, said a community dinner open to the public was one of the biggest draws.

The goal of that event, as well as the interviews the school’s leadership team conducted with students and parents, was to “take everybody’s thoughts to heart and really try to listen and respond,” Purnell said.

He estimated that the district reached about 75 people through its efforts.

Butte Falls School District hosted community forums at restaurants in Eagle Point and Butte Falls.

In addition to in-person encounters, larger districts such as Medford, Ashland and Phoenix-Talent, collected feedback through online surveys.

A total of 3,643 people responded to Medford’s survey. Parents made up the largest share, providing 42% of the responses. Students followed closely, making up 41% . Staff and other community members rounded out the group.

Staff made up the largest share of the 358 people who answered Phoenix-Talent’s survey. Ashland had 300 responses.

The responses included written comments — over 9,000 in Medford. Districts convened teams to compile and sort feedback to present to their school boards in public meetings.

The teams typically include parents, staff and students. In Ashland, it came together for three sessions that ran from the morning into mid-afternoon.

“We break up into small groups ... in order to really look at what individual age groups need and what do we need as a district,” said Laurie Rooper, human resources and communications director. “We had some great student participation.”

Across the county, some themes were common in the feedback given.

“It was very clear that student health and safety, specifically mental health supports, were a desire from the community,” Barry said.

Purnell said Prospect is exploring hiring a full-time mental and behavioral health counselor. The district currently has access only to a school psychologist through the Southern Oregon Education Service District who comes two days a week.

“That’s a huge need of ours,” he said.

Meeting students’ mental or behavioral health needs is one of the two broad purposes that Student Investment Account funds can be put toward. The other is improving outcomes and reducing academic disparities for students of color, students with disabilities and other underserved groups.

Because of that, teams also met with students experiencing homelessness, students involved with LGBTQ groups and others. Medford and Ashland took information from parents involved with their joint Black and African American Student Success grant, and Medford met with its Latino parent group, administrators said.

With another couple of weeks before the application window opens, Ashland has posted a draft of its plan on its website. Other districts have various iterations of their themes and goals, as well as information about their processes.

School boards have to approve the plans before they can be sent to the state.

Rooper said the process has given her a sense that “the people of the state of Oregon value education.”

“That is the overwhelming message I think that we’re receiving — that it’s important and students are our future,” she said. “And we can do some really good work with this funding.”

Materials most recently presented at board meetings in Phoenix-Talent and Medford are embedded below this article.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

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