Students at Ontario Middle School discuss during one of Matt Mauney’s eighth-grade pre-algebra classes. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

ONTARIO – The most recent English and math assessment results released by the Oregon Department of Education show that students and schools in Malheur County generally lag behind their peers across the rest of the state. 

However, this is not the case across the board.

Ontario Middle School appears to be bucking the trend, and school officials and teachers provided some insight into why students at the school are outperforming their peers. 

In English language arts, the school performed slightly below the state average, but still outperformed every other school in the district with the exception of Ontario High School. 

In math however, each grade level at the middle school surpassed both the state average and every other school in the district.  

The significance of the assessment results is that they show how Ontario Middle School is consistently improving in both subjects. 

The state average dropped between 2017-18 and 2018-19 from about 40% to around 39% of students meeting state standards in math proficiency. 

For all students at Ontario Middle School, about 57% of students meet state standards in English and 44% in math.

Last year’s Every Student Succeeds Act Accountability Details Report breaks down English and math achievement and growth as two separate metrics. The report assigns each metric a level, level 1 being the lowest, and level 5 being the highest.

The report shows that all students at Ontario Middle School performed at a level 2 for both English and math achievement. However, they performed at a level 5 for English and math growth. 

There are 364 students and 25 teachers at Ontario Middle School. 

The school uses different math programs for seventh and eighth grades.

The percentage of seventh-graders meeting state standards in math increased from about 30% to nearly 44% from 2017-18 and 2018-19. For eighth-graders, it increased from about 37% to around 43%. Both are healthy leads over the state average for math proficiency. 

Seventh-graders jumped from about 52% to around 62% in English proficiency. 

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Lisa Longoria, Ontario Middle School principal, attributes the improvement to a process that has students more actively monitor their own progress and takeing pride in that progress.

She said the school formed advisory teams, providing a 20-minute class once a day where students participate in team-building exercises and discuss academic goals.  

“Twice a week they work with their advisory team teacher to monitor and review and progress with those goals,” Longoria said. 

In Matt Mauney’s eighth-grade pre-algebra class, students sat in groups and pored over an assignment in search of answers as their instructor made his rounds. 

When he was a student himself at the middle school, Mauney struggled with math. 

“That’s part of the reason I became a math teacher. Math is probably one of the harder subjects to teach,” Mauney said. “Kids like being in my class. Kids respond well. I make it fun. So that’s a huge thing.” 

Often Mauney’s students work with Chromebook laptops, a feature of the eighth-grade math program that is one year in the making.

Mauney said having technology in his classroom helps because his students tend to respond better to it. 

“They analyze it better than having a pencil and a paper. So, I have integrated technology into the classroom, which has been huge,” Mauney said. 

“Every kid has Google Classroom. I can upload the notes that I want to share. We can edit them together, everyone is on the same page, no one is left out. That’s huge. When it was the old-school way, paper, taking notes, kids got left behind, and I love that mentality, I don’t want any kid left behind,” he added.  

For Mauney, who grew up in Ontario and graduated from Ontario High School, school is much different now.

“We are doing different things here at the middle school and it’s working,” he said. 

Greg Alexander, a social studies teacher who has been teaching at the school since 1991, said that he does a lot through his advisory team to create challenges and promote growth.  

“Every teacher gets about 17 or 18 kids and you get those kids all year long, and we have all sorts of things we do in there,” Alexander said of the advisory team program. “We create the feeling of team. We do team building activity,” he said. 

Longoria said the school uses a tool called iReady, a monitoring and diagnostic tool. 

Both the math and English language arts programs monitor student success using iReady. 

Matt Mauney, eighth-grade pre-algebra teacher at Ontario Middle School, engages a group of students during one of his classes. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

Eighth-grade language arts teacher Kemmy Vanek said that in the language arts program teachers perform a kind of “diagnostic” at the beginning of the year. 

Vanek said the iReady diagnostic allows teachers to identify each student’s reading level. If they are falling behind, Vanek said, they are put into a lab – a specialized course for students to work on specific needs. 

“It gives you just the lessons that you are missing and then you can work your way out of a lab, and once you are at grade level you are no longer in the lab,” Vanek said. 

“It allows us to differentiate within the classroom for every student by giving them just what they need,” she said. 

For Vanek, the diagnostic and pinpointing system is obviously having a positive effect on the assessment results. 

“The children have increased pretty much year for year,” Vanek said. 

Vanek, a teacher at the middle school for about 16 years, said the school’s success can’t be attributed to just one person or program. 

“It takes the whole district. It’s not just the middle school. From sixth grade to seventh grade we try to backpack off of what they are doing at the elementary school and they’re doing a good job and we hope to continue,” Vanek said.

Vanek said that all the teaching methods used at the middle school are research-based, and that this month in her language arts class, students will discuss horror as a genre. The format ensures students are exposed to both concepts and vocabulary and that there is an open forum for discussion. 

“The classroom isn’t just a quiet place anymore, and it shouldn’t be,” Vanek said. “It’s more of a place where you are generating ideas and trying to hypothesize. And a lot of times we learn from another person’s opinion over the same object.” 

One central thread that seems to be part of the foundation of the middle school’s success is the advisory program. 

Alexander describes the advisory program as representative of the school’s overall culture, a culture that for the most part, has created better scores. 

“I think you can look at a lot of schools and the ones that have the most positive cultures for kids and adults are the ones that do the best,” Alexander said. 

The Ontario Middle School culture is apparent. There is a positive, familial vibe between students and teachers, a comradery that seems to be the fabric of the school’s environment. 

At the end of the day on a Monday, the intercom crackled to announce the results of the school’s fourth annual fall bakeoff. 

Math teacher Lindsay Roulston had won first place in the savory division for her sweet potato rolls. 

Then as students and teachers departed for the day, the slamming of lockers and the din of conversation filling the halls, a student shouted across the hall at Mauney as he walked through the front office.

“Mauney! I love you!”  

With a grin, Mauney acknowledged the remark with an upward nod of the head.

“Our culture is one that is inviting to kids. We are a school that I think most all of the kids feel it is a safe inviting place to be,” Alexander said. “I think kids at OMS really feel like the adults care about them and want them to have great success.” 

Chart created with Datawrapper graphics. Data from the Oregon Department of Education. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

News tip? Contact reporter Joe Siess: [email protected] or 541-473-3377. 

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