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)

Each fall, state officials put out stacks of scores and percentages to show how students performed on tests. Honestly, the numbers can be numbing but they tell important stories about what the schools themselves are accomplishing. And educators across Malheur County should pay attention to the numbers posted by Ontario Middle School.

As reporter Joe Siess wrote recently, students at the Ontario school did better in English than just about every school in the county. (Only Ontario High School did better.) In math, no school could touch the results of the Ontario middle school students. The performance was not only the best in Malheur County but also beat the state averages.

Pause a moment and consider this. Ontario Middle School serves a diverse student body in a community with deep levels of poverty. No matter. Students are achieving, and school officials offer several explanations.

Credit goes to the students themselves, who clearly have responded well to being held accountable for their individual work and being part of a collective effort to do better. Teachers at the middle school aren’t just showing up for work to teach math or English or some other topic. They watch over every student, crafting ways to help struggling students catch up and tracking them carefully.

The success at Ontario Middle School is as much about climate as it is math equations. Principal Lisa Longoria can take a bow for leading a school team that is willing to try new ways. They work to make school a place that is alluring to students instead of a staid academic environment.

The news isn’t so terrific at some other schools around Malheur County. There are flashing warning lights in places where test scores are stagnant or declining. In some schools, the suboptimal performance by students has persisted for years.

Any school, of course, has its particular challenges, but Ontario Middle School shows challenges don’t have to be excuses.

This lesson will be critical to every teacher, every parent, and every student in the months ahead. State education officials are putting the machinery in place to hand out hundreds of millions in new money to school systems around the state.

The bargain imposed by state legislators, though, is that schools have to show they moved the needle on student performance. Malheur County school systems are now planning what money to request, what they would do with the fresh cash and what the results would be.

This is not a moment for modest improvements or changes. Malheur County’s schools owe it to students to provide them the best education possible. Schools that have bounced along with fairly flat performance among students ought to jolt into action. This isn’t a job just for school superintendents and principals. Teachers need to step up but so do parents. Parents can be a powerful force to hold school officials accountable, to not accept weak test results. Parents have a duty too, particularly in helping cut the chronic absenteeism that dooms students to failure.

In the weeks ahead, school leaders should be honest and transparent with their communities about where challenges remain. They ought to recruit citizens to help administrators and teachers focus on key academic targets. And parents normally comfortable with letting others do the heavy lifting on school policies need to show up.

As Ontario Middle School has demonstrated, more actively engaging students in grades and success works. School leaders should as eagerly court parents and other volunteers to join in to lay the groundwork so that no Malheur County school leaves students performing worse than the state averages.

­– LZ

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