In Oregon, we value everyone’s voice; we believe democracy only works when everyone’s point of view is represented. That means decision makers, from school board members to city councilors to state legislators, need to reflect the communities they serve. We know our communities are healthier when elected leaders can truly speak to their neighbors’ experiences and needs.
Unfortunately, that rarely happens. For example, fewer than 30% of Jefferson County School District 509-J's 3000 students are white. The majority are American Indian (34%) and Hispanic (34%). Nearly all of 509-J's American Indian students live on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. And yet, 509-J's five-member school board has generally only had one board member from Warm Springs at a time. Most have come from Madras, which is 66% white.
509-J's school board hasn't reflected its students, and that shows in the school district's graduation rates. In Oregon, which ranks 49th of 50 U.S. states for its high school graduation rate, 509J is in the bottom 15% of school districts. Only 57% of its students graduate in four years.
Why is this, and what can be done to change it? According to KWSO Station Manager Sue Matters, who is running for position 2 on 509-J’s school board this May, the district has focused too much on test scores and not enough on communicating with, listening to and considering input from teachers, students, families and the community. The people who don't show up at family nights, who aren't represented by the school board, are the ones the school district needs to reach out to the most and try their hardest to engage.
Warm Springs Chief Operations Officer Alyssa Macy, who is campaigning for position 3, agrees communications between the board and community could improve. She also believes education is strongly linked to communities’ wellbeing.
Sue Matters, whose two children went through 509-J schools, served on a number of school site councils, so she is familiar with the schools’ strengths and challenges. As Warm Springs Radio's station manager, she's also grown comfortable interacting with community leaders and communicating what they say and do to her fellow Warm Springs residents.
In Sue's opinion, Jefferson County 509-J schools, the school district's board members and administrators, worry about the wrong things. They punish students for trivialities like wearing hats to school, when they should foreground students’ academic achievement; be aware of students’ family life, mental health and other individual needs; and ensure their schools are a place youth feel welcome. They think conventionally, attempting to apply methods that have worked to boost other schools' test scores and graduation rates, when they should realize that their community and schools are unique and one size does not fit all.
Alyssa Macy grew up in Warm Springs, and she now has two foster children who are students in the Jefferson County School District 509-J. Alyssa has plenty of experience advocating for indigenous peoples nationally and internationally. She wants to improve graduation rates for students in her community and expose them to as many opportunities as possible.
With the May 2017 election, Jefferson County School District 509-J faces a pivotal moment. Three of five school board seats are up for grabs, and a Warm Springs resident is running to fill each of those seats. This year, 509-J's school board could reflect its student body. Hopefully voters will make that happen.