A bump in enrollment and continued progress on the career and technical education front has not only kept Wallowa County schools improving but providing educational opportunities not available in many other rural schools.
Those are a few of the insights gained at the Rotary Education Summit Oct. 24, hosted by Rotary Club of Wallowa County with all three school superintendents speaking.
The number one challenge facing rural schools is the cost of doing business — which includes more and more demands for special education services, teacher retirement costs, the necessity to expand technology and career readiness programs, as well as the expanded technology base needed to prepare students for the future.
Also part of the puzzle is the need to plan for replacement of aging buildings that may fall out of safety compliance and the establishment of programs that will quickly identify students in need of extra assistance, the superintendents said.
Interim Supt. Jay Hummel of Wallowa praised his teachers for their work in the Response to Intervention Program, which involves parent and teacher collaboration and provides tools for teachers to assess students regularly and monitor their progress as they receive supplemental instruction.
“It’s just a lot of work, but we’ve got a great group of teachers, and it’s already a high-performing district in a lot of ways,” Hummel said.
Hummel also discussed his school’s focus on the Oregon Transfer Module for high school students. The program, which was developed in collaboration with colleges, allows students to take classes that count as college credits while in their high school junior and senior year.
“As they leave us and enter college, they can enter as a sophomore, which is a big savings for parents,” he said.
Joseph School District Supt. Lance Homan discussed the common goal of the districts in finding more ways to prepare students who are not college-bound.
“We’re seeing that all kids aren’t going to go to college, so how do we prepare them for the future?” he asked.
Joseph uses its aviation program, which has received a $437,000 grant to build a structure to house the program, and a new fire science training program that will give high school students certifications to be firefighters.
The question of whether combining the three districts into one would benefit the districts was met with a hearty round of laughter by attendees, who knew well that pride has generally kept the districts separate for decades.
“Is there a right way or a wrong way?” asked Enterprise School District Supt. Erika Pinkerton.
She recalled that in her first week on the job, she found an article from the Chieftain dated in 1925 discussing consolidation.
“We still haven’t done it,” she said. “I can say that the history and the families, bloodlines that go deep into our community, there’s a lot of pride within each district and that pride goes far for our students.
“I am extremely overwhelmed with the amount of support from the families and the community in our district, which I have never seen before. What I get to be a part of now is something that doesn’t exist elsewhere. So the current model is working quite well for Enterprise.”
Hummel also pointed out that there has been consolidation through the Education Service District.
“We share a business manager, special education services and a lot of other services,” he said.
Homan’s said his experience and what he’s gleaned in talking to colleagues in other districts indicates that the schools were doing fine as separate districts –– offering classes unavailable in other districts, preparing students for their futures and keeping up with technology.
“The quality (of education) in Wallowa County is phenomenal,” he said.
In answer to a question on how the schools could interface with the art community in the county, all three superintendents said they were integrating local talent.
“We are committed to keeping our arts programs because those go hand-in-hand with education,” Homan said.
Forty individuals, including Rotary Club members and guests, attended the summit at St. Katherine’s Catholic Church in Enterprise. The club hopes to make it an annual event.