ONTARIO – The largest middle school in the county is leaving some of its students far behind their peers in basic skills, including reading, writing and math.
State education officials have put Ontario Middle School on a special watch list for failing to fully serve Hispanic students learning English and students from other underserved groups.
While the district received the letter Nov. 16, administrators have been silent. They didn’t respond to repeated requests for the notice, which was finally made public by the Oregon Department of Education on Thursday, Nov. 30.
District officials have been aware of test results since July that triggered the state’s recent action.
The state put the school on the list because too many students are far too behind in reading, writing and math.
According to state data, the school is one of the worst performers in Oregon and the only school in the county to be put on an improvement plan.
On average in the state, for instance, 15% of Hispanic students tested proficient in math. At Ontario Middle School, it’s 9.7%.
An abundance of research has established that mathematical knowledge plays a crucial role in understanding other school subjects, including science and social studies and plays a vital role in a student’s ability to graduate and succeed in a career.
Meanwhile, district officials have been aware of the notice for two weeks but have yet to tell the public anything. At a Monday, Nov. 27 school board meeting, administrators generally discussed state testing but said nothing about Ontario Middle School’s new status.
Nikki Albisu, superintendent of the Ontario School District, and Lisa Longoria, principal of the middle school, did not respond to multiple requests for comment last week. Bret Uptmor, chair of the Ontario School Board, said he could not address questions about the development, but he expected the district staff was working to develop responses.
The Enterprise is seeking public documents to determine how district officials reacted to the development.
State improvement plan
According to the Department of Education’s notification letter, district officials must by next September submit a plan for how they will marshal improvement among the lagging students.
Peter Rudy, a public affairs specialist with the state education agency, said the middle school would remain on the watch list for four years. The school technically has been identified by the state for “Targeted Support and Improvement.”
The first year, Rudy said, is dedicated to devising the improvement plan.
According to the state education agency, it will expect improvements over the next four years but also will provide resources to help. Ontario Middle School will have access to federal funding to develop the improvement plan, hire more staff and receive additional teacher training, among other things.
Mark Redmond, Malheur County Education Service District superintendent, said that his office would work with Ontario administrators and state education staff to plan how to boost student performance.
Redmond said the county’s education service district dedicates Angie Arriola, director of curriculum and assessment, to work with schools that are put on state improvement plans.
He said the Huntington School District, which is within the education service district, was put on an improvement plan last year.
Redmond said Arriola met with Huntington school officials and staff with the Department of Education, helped develop an improvement plan and made about five visits to Huntington last year.
Redmond said while he has not spoken with Ontario officials, he anticipates the state education agency will set up a meeting with Ontario and the education service district.
Redmond said the three will work in collaboration to develop the plan.
“The whole goal is to raise their scores so they’re not in school improvement,” Redmond said.
Redmond said school districts can get federal money to help cover planning costs. Huntington got $10,000. He said another round of federal money helps schools put the plan into play.
State officials said they expect to notify Ontario soon about how much money it can expect.
District is silent
Six out of 10 of the 361 students enrolled at Ontario Middle School in 2023 are Latino, according to state data. Students who are identified as English learners make up 15% of the school’s student body, while 14% are students with disabilities, according to the school’s report card.
The school employs 21 teachers, three educational assistants and one counselor, according to state education agency.
Since Tuesday, Nov. 21, Albisu has not responded to multiple requests from the Enterprise for the state’s notice, which the district received several days earlier.
Taryn Smith, the district’s public relations coordinator and records custodian, told the Enterprise Wednesday, Nov. 22, that she did not have access to the letter, but Albisu did and would provide a copy Monday, Nov. 27. As of Monday, Dec. 4, Albisu has not done so.
In a Friday, Dec.1 email, Smith wrote that she was otherwise working with Longoria on responding to the Enterprise’s request for comment. She said Albisu was out on vacation for a “few weeks.”
Smith said in an email on Monday, Dec. 4, that the district learned weeks ago that state officials intended to designate Ontario Middle School, but no details have been shared about the basis for doing so.
Smith noted that Ontario schools have been challenged by poor student attendance.
State records show attendance that 80% of Hispanic English learners and students with disabilities regularly attend class, among the highest rates at the middle school.
At a recent board meeting, school administrators criticized state testing but made no reference to the substandard results for Ontario Middle School.
Melissa Williams, the district’s academic specialist and Erin O’Hara-Reins, principal of Pioneer Elementary School, advised board members about state testing.
Williams highlighted general district performance metrics and told the board the state’s testing method is “flawed.”
“The concern that we have is that our students think they’re not good at math when in reality it’s just these somewhat arbitrary scores that somebody has chosen to say this is what meets the standard,” she told the board.
Williams said the chief concern is the sense students have that they are capable learners in math. Also, she said, the district leaders worry about teachers, who could blame themselves for the poor test results.
Albisu told board members that the district relies more on “internal formal assessments” to measure student’s growth. The assessments are done more frequently and can include quizzes or evaluations where students can repeatedly make mistakes before grasping a concept.
Albisu said the district is taking other measures to help students gain ground, but the focus on the assessment test scores without the context of what the scores mean papers over the work the district is doing.
“It is hard when our media and things like that are just reporting out on just these test scores,” Albisu said. “We’re trying to catch kids up and make progress in different ways.”
The state sets the educational standards for students and testing is intended to show their progress or detect gaps. The state system reviews scores for every school and produces public charts showing how districts and schools compare. The charts also compare results by grade level and by student demographics.
According to the state education agency, schools must develop improvement plans when only one out of 10 students in any group of students demonstrate proficiency on an assessment test.
Rudy said four groups at Ontario Middle School had 90% of students who did not show the expected proficiency in reading, writing and math. That included middle school Hispanic students learning English, students living in poverty, students living with disabilities and students representing an underserved racial group.
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