A collaborative model that for a century has used evidence-based practices to help rural farmers around the globe generate more productive and marketable crops has been adopted and modified by the University of Oregon to help educators and school districts improve success markers of graduation, attendance and discipline rates, and other measures.
Similar to the agricultural extension model, which pairs university researchers with groups of farmers, the work of UO’s Oregon Research Schools Network is founded on using the expertise of UO researchers to help educator-led teams to increase their capacity to improve students’ behavioral and academic outcomes.
The UO’s College of Education Dean Randy Kamphaus proposed a five-year trial to support teachers in urban, rural, coastal and low-income areas of Oregon to focus on addressing their school’s particular problem of practice. Those topics ranged from decreasing chronic absenteeism to improving instructional effectiveness and classroom engagement.
UO President Michael Schill put $1 million in seed money behind Kamphaus’ idea and put Nancy Golden, UO’s first professor of practice, in charge of helping tackle some of the state’s most systemic education challenges. Some of those issues included Oregon having one of the lowest graduation rates, chronic absenteeism and persistent racially disproportionate discipline practices.“My most value-added point is being connected to the field,” said Golden, who has more than 44 years of award-winning experience as an educational leader, including as an Oregon superintendent of the year and the state’s chief education officer. “It’s very much a model of seeing what the needs of the school have and then matching them with research and University of Oregon experts.”
The project, now in its third full school year, began in early 2018 at four high schools geographically spread across the state: North Eugene, Roosevelt (in north Portland), Pendleton and Coquille Junior/ Senior High School. One educator at each of the schools was selected as a courtesy assistant clinical professor with the College of Education’s Department of Educational Methodology, Policy and Leadership. Those school-based leaders joined the network to collaborate on different areas of school improvement that were particularly important to their school.
Coquille Junior/ Senior High School, for example, is focusing on keeping its incoming freshman on track in order to improve the school’s overall graduation rate. Its schools network leader, vice principal Arnando Ruiz, meets with teachers weekly to discuss student engagement strategies and ideas to improve the students’ distance-learning experience. The network has provided surveys, guidance, research articles, access to UO topic experts and online teacher trainings.
“It’s been something that has been very beneficial for our district and our school,” said Ruiz, who has worked in the Coquille district for 18 years. “Just the different resources that ORSN has made available, opportunities for professional development and just becoming a better educator. I would highly recommend it because I know how it has benefitted us.”
As part of the partnership, educators at the different schools help the network coordinate professional development trainings that were data-driven, consistent and focused on certain key topics. The high school-based educators also met weekly in virtual video calls to discuss progress on improvement efforts with Golden and network Associate Director Sol Joye, a former middle and high school teacher who has been with the College of Education since 2014.
Golden and Joye created a replicable and research-based school improvement model that teachers use to continuously monitor their progress on unique school-based issues. The model was guided by research from UO faculty members, such as College of Education professor John Seeley, an expert in implementation science and program evaluation, emotional and behavioral disorders and school-based mental health interventions.
However, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced teachers and students into virtual classrooms, the network shifted gears, working with partner schools to help their teachers prepare for the new reality of teaching completely online and dealing with those new challenges. Suddenly, the school goals of improving longer-term academic outcomes for students shifted to the new priorities of ensuring students had access to Wi-Fi or food.
Because network teacher leaders were already regularly meeting virtually to share information and support each other, they were able to quickly adjust priorities and refocus on helping each other figure out how to meet their students’ more immediate needs.
“In terms of the pandemic, everything has pivoted,” Golden said. “While the longer term improvement goals are still there, I think the short-term benefit of what has happened is that small network of schools has really helped each other. In that regard, the network and the partnership has worked as intended, even though the topics (of attention) have changed.”
Given the success of the network model at the school level, Kamphaus, Golden and Joye talked about making a more sustainable impact statewide. Around the same time, the 2019 Oregon Legislature passed the Student Success Act, which, when fully implemented, will invest $2 billion dollars a biennium into Oregon’s education system.
That money is intended to help meet students’ mental , social-emotional and behavioral needs, as well as increase academic achievement, among other priorities. Those are some of the topics that UO’s College of Education faculty had conducted research on for decades.
Golden and Joye had been working on building new relationships with two of the state’s 19 education service districts, which assist local school districts and the Department of Education in providing equitable, cost-efficient and high-quality educational services at regional levels. South Coast ESD, which is headquartered in Coos Bay, works with 10 school districts in Coos, Curry and western Douglas counties. Pendleton-based InterMountain ESD serves 18 school districts in Morrow, Umatilla, Union and Baker counties.
By working with those two service districts, the network was able to quickly expand its educational extension model from four small high schools to dozens of schools in 28 different school districts. Leaders in both education service districts have weekly check-ins with Golden, Joye and their UO-based educational research expert, using the network’s continuous evaluation process to help the teams make timely adjustments and improvements in their approach.
“This is a model that we think holds a lot of possibilities in terms of research-to-practice partnerships,” said Jeffrey Todahl, a College of Education research consultant expert and a member of the the network team. “It allows us to scale up a lot faster when we are working with districts.”
Based on a site-specific needs assessment, each of the two education service districts have focused on different yet related focus areas, each of which will help support their particular schools’ staff to improve student outcomes. In spring of 2020, for example, just as COVID was starting to spread across the state and nation, the South Coast ESD decided to focus on becoming more trauma-informed. Todahl, director of UO’s Center for the Prevention of Abuse and Neglect, has expertise in that area.
“When we began this process, our districts all noted that the students in our region required more focused supports in order to make progress, not only in their education but in their life,” said Tenneal Wetherell, superintendent of South Coast ESD. “COVID highlighted the issues and magnified them. And it became even more important for us to work together. We didn’t falter. We just said, ‘Who do we capture to help support this work?’ ”
In order to create a districtwide model focused on trauma-informed practices, the schools network provided an initial, online training in research-based, trauma-informed practices to educators in all of South Coast ESD’s 10 school districts. It currently is conducting a pilot with three of the districts. The focus is on creating trauma-informed systems that are evident at every level: in the district policies, in the school board’s vision, in every school and classroom, and in the student discipline systems.
“We don’t want one-and-done training,” Wetherell said. “Our goal at the end of this is to have a sustainable process.”
The legislature’s Student Success Act also provided resources to hire new staff as part of a grow-your-own model, as there was a shortage of counselors and mental health providers within the three counties. So, the network trained 47 instructional assistants who live and grew up in those areas to be school-based, student support specialists. The education service district also reached out to community partners and health care providers to join the the network’s initiative. One partner is South Coast Together, a community collaborative focused on fostering resilience in children, adolescents and families living in Coos and Curry counties.
“We told our story and we told our need of community and then the community responded,’ Wetherell explained. “Everyone wanted to be a part of the project and was seeing how they could connect with it.”
When Kamphaus first envisioned the schools network four years ago, it was to meet his goal of having the graduate school of education, which is ranked No. 11 in the nation, to have timely research drive positive change in how schools serve their students’ needs. COVID-19, though, provided even more incentive for educators to embrace the possibilities of a continuity of effort from every school in a selected region toward a particular problem of practice. The schools network is the realization of that promise Kamphaus had hoped for.
“Our COE faculty and staff are privileged every day to work on the next generation innovations in education and the human sciences,” he said. “I am so pleased that we can share that privilege by using our research to drive change alongside our ORSN partners. Our next goal is to expand our impact by partnering with more schools.”
—By S. Renee Mitchell, College of Education