Principal homes in on early success for kids as he takes charge at Nyssa Elementary

NYSSA—As cliche as it sounds, educators are preparing the next generation to run the world, according to Nyssa Elementary School’s new principal, Shane Pratt.

For Pratt, his hope is they lead with confidence.

With that, it is incumbent on educators to ensure kids read proficiently.

Pratt said the ability to read proficiently is vital to a student’s success in other subjects. If a student can’t understand written material, he said, they will struggle to learn math, science, or other topics.

With that, he said it all starts with early literacy, which has been a focus for Gov. Tina Kotek. Earlier this year, Oregon lawmakers allocated $150 million to support teacher training, early learning curriculum and elementary school reading programs.

With funds just going out to districts in late August, programs will not take shape until next year.

Meantime, Pratt, a longtime educator who came to Nyssa after spending 10 years as the principal and superintendent of a public charter school in Boise, said he believes the role of a teacher is to support parents in teaching their children.

One way to help parents, he said, is to encourage them to read to their young children, especially those between the ages of 3-5, pre-k students. Parents who read to their children will increase their vocabulary by hundreds of thousands of words, Pratt said.

A 2019 study out of the Ohio State University Department of Educational Studies found that kids whose parents read one book a day to their children will have heard nearly 300,000 words by age 5. Meanwhile, the study found that those kids whose parents had not read to them at all were exposed to under 5,000 words.

Pratt said his experience with growing up with a mother who used to read to him and the positive outcomes borne out in the research is why he is so passionate about reading to young children. Those first few years of school are crucial for a kid when it comes to learning how to read, Pratt said.

Pratt said his concern is the critical four-year window in grades K-3, where third grade reading is considered a crucial milestone. An abundance of research has established that students who are not adept at reading by fourth grade struggle academically and are prone to drop out of high school.

An athletic trainer at North Medford High School before being recruited to teach freshman health education, Pratt changed his career path and made the move to education while in his senior year at Southern Oregon University (then a state college) where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sports medicine and a master’s in health education in 1995. Before that, he said he had no intention of getting into education and had planned on becoming a physical therapist. At least, he joked that’s how he got his wife, a librarian, to marry him.

Before he made up his mind, he called his father, a career elementary school teacher who taught for over 30 years in the Eugene School District, for advice.

His father told him there would be good times and challenging times, and he would have an opportunity to make a difference in students’ lives and influence the directions they take in life.

“I realized that it became natural for me to be able to teach others,” he said.

Education, Pratt said, had always been a part of his life. He said growing up his dad would take him on field trips to the Oregon Health and Science University and the Newport Aquatic Center.

Just like his mother did when he was growing up, Pratt said he read to his kids and now his grandkids. His fourth is on the way.

Pratt ended up going back to his hometown, Creswell and taught at Creswell Middle School, where he was a science and health teacher and an outdoor school director. After teaching for about five years, Pratt moved into administration, where he was a principal in Umatilla and then Hermiston.

Pratt, who got his administrative certificate from the University of Oregon, said he got into administration at the elementary school level to help improve literacy in schools.

“As an administrator,” he said, “it’s our goal every day to work with these kids and help them learn how to read.”

Not unlike other districts across the state, Pratt will have his work cut out for him in Nyssa, where 39.6% of third graders are reading proficiently, two points above Oregon’s 39.4%, up from 28.2% in 2022, according to state data released Thursday, Sept. 21.

Pratt said his goal is to work with the Nyssa staff to help increase the student’s capability and confidence so that they know how to use “word attack” strategies whereby a reader recognizes the phonemes that form a word, knows its meaning, recognizes it in context and understands if it’s being used correctly in a sentence. Children must develop these skills to become successful readers.

Having these skills onboard, Pratt said, allows educators to teach kids about character and instills confidence as they go out into the world and believe in their abilities to get a decent job, go to college, or a trade school.

Pratt is aware of the challenges in Malheur County, where the rate of child poverty, as measured by the state, is 36%, the worst in Oregon. While government agencies, nonprofits and educators like him try to change it, limited budgets and staff make it difficult to make meaningful gains.

He said poverty can be an obstacle if one allows it, but it can also be an opportunity for growth.

“You let it be an opportunity to find ways to make things better,” Pratt said. 

Pratt said he met Jaime Escalante, a former East Los Angeles high school teacher whose students passed an Advanced Placement calculus exam in 1982 but were later accused of cheating. Escalante’s students were later vindicated in a retest when 12 of the 14 who were suspected of cheating took the test and passed.

Pratt said he asked Escalante, who was the subject of the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver,” what is most important when educating students who live in poverty.

According to Pratt, Escalante, who died in 2010, told him to forget poverty and educate the kids.

Pratt said that conversation with Escalante, who, like Pratt, taught in a poverty-stricken, predominantly Hispanic community, resonated with him in that, for Pratt, it’s about removing those “labels” society that society uses that ultimately hold people back from recognizing their full potential.

“I look at the child,” he said. “I look at the family. I should know that kid. I should know their needs. I should know where the strengths are. I should know what is needed and necessary with the help of the parents and just teach the kid.”

He said that educators don’t need labels like “poverty” stopping them from teaching kids.

Nonetheless, Pratt said he understands there are challenges families come up against when it comes to educating children. He said poverty, addiction, divorce, single-parent households, and other issues are among them. 

He said the goal is to offer support to help alleviate those impediments for the parents when the school can.

In August, Pratt secured a grant from a national nonprofit that allowed educators to hand out backpacks filled with school supplies at the school’s back-to-school night.

Earlier this month, Pratt began his monthly talks with parents, dubbed “Bullpup Talks,” after Nyssa’s mascot, the Bulldog. He said the meeting drew a couple of parents but generated a discussion, giving him a chance to start getting to know them and what they want from the school.

The next one, he said, will be Tuesday, Oct. 17, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the elementary school gym. He said the school will offer daycare and a translator will be on hand. 

As schools become highly politicized, Pratt said he recognizes the talks might touch on hot-button issues. As the principal, it’s his job to listen to what’s important to people.

Pratt said during the height of the pandemic, amid school closures, masking and vaccine concerns, he had to hear the “good, the bad and the ugly.”

“I just had to hear it, process it and then come up with a plan that would be most effective based on what I was hearing from my community and what I was hearing from the best science and staying within the best practice to protect all kids,” Pratt said.

He wants to bring that same mindset to the monthly parent meetings – listening, asking questions and basing his plan on what will best serve the district.

“Instead of always being the focal point of the answer,” he said, “I want answers from the parents.”

Shane Pratt, Nyssa Elementary School’s new principal, encourages young children who are racing down a bouncy house slide during the Nyssa Elementary School Carnival, Friday, Sept. 29. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)
Shane Pratt, Nyssa Elementary School’s new principal, talks to a young student at the Nyssa Elementary School Carnival, Friday, Sept. 29. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL).
Shane Pratt, Nyssa Elementary School’s new principal, hams it up with a group of children at the Nyssa Elementary School Carnival, Friday, Sept. 29. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

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