Local school officials outline challenges at education gathering

After an action-packed summer, local school officials had plenty to discuss Wednesday at the State of Education luncheon hosted by the Kelso-Longview Chamber of Commerce.

The gathering featured remarks by leaders from the Kelso and Longview school districts, as well as the president of Lower Columbia Community College.

Here’s a quick rundown of what was said at the quarterly meeting.

Kelso Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich

Kelso graduated 84 percent of its students on time last year, which beat the statewide on-time graduation rate by 5 percentage points. Increasing the district’s graduation rate every year is one of its main goals.

Kelso High School also had five All-State Academic Teams. That means five of the school’s athletic teams had the best-combined GPA in the state relative to other teams from similar-sized districts.

Gelbrich said the district has one of the most comprehensive grant-funded professional development programs he’s ever seen. “It’s lauded by people throughout our region and throughout the state,” he said.

New teachers are paired with experienced mentors who observe them in the classroom and offer advice. New teachers then gather monthly with their mentors and colleagues for group learning sessions.

Gelbrich said teachers and administrators have noticed a disturbing increase in aggressive behavior among young children, especially preschool-aged kids. Gelbrich did not cite a specific rate of increase. “We were hoping it was just a spike, but it isn’t actually a spike, it’s actually an increase,” he said. Gelbrich said the district is planning to convene a discussion with community organizations and related agencies about how to tackle the problem.

Although the Legislature’s McCleary fix is good news for local taxpayers, Gelbrich said lawmakers’ plan to fully fund basic education has a number of negative “unintended consequences.” Specifically, the state’s new teacher salary schedule could make it harder to attract and retain teachers. The new plan could also make it harder for districts to generate enough tax revenue to cover vital expenses that fall outside the technical definition of basic education.

“Although it’s a plan, it’s not a solution,” Gelbrich said.

Longview School District Superintendent Dan Zorn

Longview has seen a dramatic improvement in its graduation rate over the past five years. The district graduated nearly 79 percent of students on time last year, up from 67 percent in 2013 — the year Zorn was hired.

The district has also increased the percentage of high schoolers passing the state’s English assessment from 59 percent three years ago to 74 percent last year.

“That … increase is huge for us,” Zorn said. “They’re not percentages, those are lives.” Zorn noted that every percentage point increase represents about five students who passed the test. “If we had not increased those levels, that’s 75 kids that would not have been proficient readers that are proficient readers now,” he said.

Zorn noted that local districts will get an increase in state funding to help struggling students in high-poverty schools and students with special education needs.

Elementary school reading and math scores on the state’s Smarter and Balanced assessment test remain well below the statewide average. They have remained relatively flat since the new test was introduced three years ago.

“At the elementary level, we’ve got a lot of work to do and we’re continuing to plug away at that,” Zorn said.

Longview’s special education needs continue to exceed the amount of special ed funding it gets from the state. While 16 percent of the district’s students requiring special education services, the state is only providing enough funding for 13.5 percent of the student population — leaving the district to rely on local school levies to make up the difference.

“The challenges that the kids are coming to school with are incredible,” Zorn said.

Zorn admitted the district’s $121.6 million bond proposal to build several new schools is “a heavy lift” for voters. But he also expressed optimism that voters will support the district’s facilities plan on Nov. 7 — especially when they learn that their property taxes could still decrease if the bond passes. (Note: TDN will take a deeper look at how school bond measures in Cowlitz County will affect local property taxes on Oct. 8.)

Lower Columbia College President Chris Bailey

Bailey called attention to LCC’s athletics programs, noting that the school won Northwest Athletic Conference championships in baseball and volleyball.

LCC graduates who go on to four-year universities have a combined 3.24 GPA, which is just as good as students who started at a traditional university, Bailey said.

The school also has a 77 percent placement rate for graduates of its vocational programs, which ties LCC for fourth out of the state’s 34 community colleges.

Bailey said the Legislature’s stalled capital budget has forced LCC to temporarily halt a major renovation project in one of its main buildings.

The amount of state support LCC receives has not kept pace with inflation due to a decrease in funding through the state’s operating budget.

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