Ontario officials mum, can’t document efforts to boost troubled middle school

ONTARIO — After Oregon education leaders put Ontario Middle School on a state watchlist to boost poor performance among students, Ontario School District officials claimed they were already deeply working on the issues at the school.

They were not.

A review of the middle school’s records also revealed that school officials failed to meet their own goals in turning around sagging math and reading scores among middle schoolers. Records the district shared with the Enterprise show that nearly half of all eighth graders at Ontario Middle School were reading at three levels below their grade level in November. 

Nikki Albisu, superintendent of the Ontario School District, refused the Enterprise’s request for an interview last week. Bret Uptmor, school board chair, followed suit and declined. Uptmor wrote in an email that he did not know enough about the middle school’s poor performance and that he was on vacation in Hawaii. 

Lisa Longoria, principal of the middle school, did not respond to multiple requests, which included a voicemail and an email, to schedule an interview on a date and time of her choosing days. 

As of Monday, Albisu, Uptmor and Longoria also had not responded to a fact-checking email sent Friday concerning this report.

In an unsigned December statement, the district administrators wrote that because school leaders have a “system of close monitoring and evaluation,” educators were “able to anticipate” the dismal test scores. But they could not document how they predicted the scores and why they did not do anything to improve them beforehand.

The district statement assured the community that its “process begins at the building level and includes a district review.”

Taryn Smith, the district’s public relations manager, wrote that “no record of the district review exists at this time.” She was responding to a public records request from the Enterprise.

The district officials who had access to the state test scores since July didn’t say when administrators noticed the poor performance on state tests, which students took in the spring of 2023. 

“These areas of focus are not a surprise to us,” the statement said. “Middle school administration had already identified English language arts and math achievement, specifically targeting students with disabilities and English learners,” the statement said.

The district asserted it works with parents to “establish goals.”

Asked for records about those goals, Smith released 12 pages of the schools calendars and templates regarding math and reading interventions, along with individual student action plans for parents and teachers to fill out.

She belatedly released the school’s most recent improvement plan, created in October. The 11-page plan set ambitious goals for dramatically improving student performance. The plan listed the names of ten parents who were part of the “planning team,” but later, the document notes six parents “actively engaged in the development of the schoolwide plan.” School staff and parents meet monthly for one hour. Smith later released the middle school’s improvement plans for 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023 after the Enterprise requested them.

The newspaper’s request told school officials that it sought any records showing the development of current strategies, a district review of those strategies and a record of where parents were involved to identify specific concerns, as the district claimed.

Out of more than 100 pages of documents released a month later, none document a specific strategy by administrators to address the school’s poor performance. 

Smith did provide a generic instruction manual from 2019, created by the district years before the state action and another one from a private vendor, along with lesson plan templates. 

District officials have blamed the dismal state test scores on poor attendance among key student groups. However, state records show that 80% of Hispanic students learning English and students with disabilities regularly attend school. In Oregon, a student is considered “chronically absent” when they miss more than 10% of school days during the year.

According to Smith, because students met the state definition, those missed school days factored into the school’s poor performance. 

The school district provided no records to show how they determined absenteeism among those student groups was a contributing factor. Instead, the district provided links to information about school attendance on the state Education Department’s website.

Lisa Longoria, principal of Ontario Middle School, is among the district officials mentioned in a “statement of confidence” in a December press release regarding the middle school’s poor performance. District officials cannot substantiate claims they made in a statement that Longoria and her staff had long been addressing issues at the school before the state in November put the school on an improvement plan. (The Enterprise/File)

School officials failed to meet their own goals 

According to the middle school’s improvement plan for the next school year, nearly half of all eighth graders were reading at least three levels below their grade level.

The plan aims to boost the percentage of students meeting state reading standards from 33% to 44%, the state average for 2023.

The improvement plan also showed that only about one out of 10 students could demonstrate proficiency in math.

School officials plan to change that with summer classes based on how students perform on state and formative assessments. Such supplemental summer courses would be offered for “specific students, not during the school year,” the plan said.

School officials plan to use a site council, a group of parents and school staff that meet to establish goals.

The lofty goals of the new plan stand in contrast to the performance of school officials in fulfilling goals set for the 2022-2023 school year.

School officials expected their middle school students to improve their test results to equal the average performance of all middle school students in Oregon.

That didn’t happen.

In math, nearly 8 out of 10 Ontario students equaled the state performance in 2022. The school system planned to drive that score to meet or exceed the state average the following year.

Instead, math scores plummeted by half.

In reading, nearly half of Ontario students were reading proficiently but were nonetheless 2% above the state performance standard the year before. The following year, the scores dropped 10% below the state average.

In 2023, the school aimed at a “return” to having a math and reading lab for those students who demonstrated an “academic need.” The plan does not explain how a student qualifies to attend a math or reading lab or how or when educators plan to bring back the labs.

School leaders planned to more rigorously review student performance through the school year, building individual plans for struggling students.

But the school system had taken a similar approach the year before, setting a goal to more faithfully assess student performance.

‘A statement of confidence’

In response to the Enterprise’s records request seeking to substantiate the district’s claims that administrators had long been addressing issues at the middle school.

District officials could provide no such documents. Smith said instead that the district intended to show “confidence” in school leaders. Smith said the district intended its remarks to be “a statement of confidence.” Longoria has been principal at the middle school since 2013 and was Oregon’s 2020 middle school principal of the year as selected by the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators. 

The largest middle school in the county, data from the Oregon Department of Education reported 361 students enrolled at Ontario Middle School in 2023. The school employs 21 teachers, three educational assistants and one counselor, according to the state education agency.

Officials remain quiet about poor results, critical of state testing

In recent school board meetings, school officials criticized state tests, saying they don’t accurately measure student performance. Administrators and school board members have remained largely silent about the substandard results at Ontario Middle School.  

Federal mandates, however, require annual tests in reading and math. Test results help school leaders understand whether students are meeting the academic standards for their grade levels. If students aren’t on track academically, school and state officials are supposed to create plans to improve student performance.

Melissa Williams, the district’s academic specialist, told the board the state’s testing method is “flawed.” 

She said as students reach higher grade levels, they have a more challenging time meeting state standards for math but find an easier going in reading and writing. She said students are expected to meet arbitrary benchmarks that may be discouraging.

Williams said a chief concern of district leaders is that students grow up with a sense that they are capable learners. But leaders also worry about teachers, who could blame themselves for the poor test results.


State puts Ontario Middle School on watch list

Ontario School District says lagging scores at middle school are no surprise

Ontario’s Longoria named middle school principal of the year

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