Curtis outlines challenges, opportunities for district


South Lane School District (SLSD) Superintendent Yvonne Curtis presented a mid-year self-reflection of her and her cabinet’s goals and progress in a SLSD Board meeting on Monday (Jan. 31).

The report will in part inform the board’s later evaluation of the superintendent, which must be conducted by March 15.

Curtis began by describing the current context of a district in the midst of a trying pandemic. 

“We’re now moving very quickly into our third school year that’s been impacted,” she said. “As the pandemic rages on, though, our students keep learning and our teachers keep teaching — because our children come first.”

The pandemic’s impact on school staff since returning to in-person learning this year has been palpable. As colleagues have become sick and taken time off work, others have had to adjust on the fly to cover duties.

State mandates such as masking and vaccines have also created all kinds of turmoil — not just in implementation — but also of the political disagreement around the mandates.

“These created trauma over and over again, so it takes some time to heal and move forward,” said Curtis. “And when school started, we had the Delta variant spike. We got through that and we were hopeful. And then we got hit by Omicron variant. And that’s where we are right now.”

While some forecasts predicted the spike in Omicron cases to dissipate last week, SLSD is still reporting high numbers.

Curtis confirmed that staff are indeed exhausted as a result, “but my work as the superintendent is to find the balance between ensuring students continue learning and progressing while also hearing and responding to staff needs.

“One of the promises that you will make (as superintendent) is that your decisions are always based on what is best for kids. And in my recent history I’ve added: ‘With the information you have at the time’ because we are in a quickly changing time.”

Despite the challenges, Curtis reported that the district’s “learning culture” among students was seeing positive growth and she was looking forward to assessment data for the second semester.

She also noted the change to in-person learning and the opening of school buildings for all students every school day impacted students’ own personal outlooks, which were showing signs of progress.

“Every time I asked them, ‘How do you feel about being at school right now?’ They’re saying, ‘I’m so happy to be at school with my friends and teachers.’ And I’ve heard that at every level,” she said.

Curtis listed a number of additional programs and services in the district this year.

Along with Student Investment Account (SIA) funding, grants have helped cover the costs of staffing for these programs.

“We have been able to be awarded several grants that are providing these services as well,” said Curtis. “So just in this school year, in the last five months, we have five — and we’re in the process of hiring our sixth — community resource specialists because the need is so great.”

The extra funding has also enabled the hiring of three interpreters, two of them bilingual in Spanish and English and another trilingual.

The Preschool Promise classroom, a service which targets underserved children, is continuing with three classes this year and a grant in progress will add a fourth.

Additional CTE (Career and Technical Education) opportunities are available at Lincoln Middle School, Cottage Grove High School and Al Kennedy High School.

Then there are six literacy specialists who are looking at new reading programs.

Seven social-emotional learning (SEL) specialists will also fill roles through the district. There are already three, one at each of the secondary schools, and the district’s elementary team is in the process of hiring four more.

“For our secondary mental health therapy that students need, we actually have therapists on site,” said Curtis. “So students can have their therapy appointments right there at school.”

There are also seven new staff members in the finance and human resources department.

With all the new staffing comes the challenge of cohesion. Especially as staff may fall ill, cross-training has become key component to adapting.

“We are building an interdependent and collaborative district culture,” said Curtis. “We’re learning that, when you’re in the middle of a pandemic, you can’t just have one person who has all the information.”

On top of this, Curtis said the district is focusing on how to create sustainable program development, ensuring that the additional staff positions are secured with ongoing funding.

In March, the district will gather a team to work on the development of a “School Climate Survey”, which will gather input from multiple stakeholders including the school board, staff, students, teachers and parents.

“Because their perspectives of what their students are experiencing aren’t always the same,” explained Curtis. “And you need to look at all sets of those data when you’re making new plans or making new decisions, otherwise you could start to correct for what might not really be the whole picture around the challenge.

“It is taxing work. But we are finding a way. … Our staff are telling us what works, what doesn’t work, our kids are telling us and we’re learning how to listen better. We’re learning how to work more interdependently and more collaboratively. And that’s because we’re taking the time to develop relationships.”

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