Answering The Bell at Lowell’s Schools

Students in the Lowell High School leadership class have been involved in some of the planning that has gone into a substantial upgrade in school buildings and curriculum, which has led to a rebirth of community pride in Lowell. (Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard)

Improvements in buildings and curriculum are designed to prepare students for college

By Josephine Woolington
The Register-Guard
Sept. 15, 2014 

LOWELL — Given that her brother, sister, cousin, grandfather and uncle all were in the U.S. military, 17-year-old Kaysey Demarce figured her future also would involve wearing camouflage.

The Lowell School District senior is now looking toward college to study either sociology or criminology, instead of joining the Air Force.

“I thought (the military) was the only option,” said Kaysey, who has attended the rural schools southeast of Eugene since kindergarten. She thinks she may want to become a caseworker or police officer after college.

Other students at Lowell High School — many of whom will be the first in their family to go to college — have started thinking about higher education. Among a lengthy list of changes at the Lowell district, school officials in the past year have worked to help get students thinking about college and careers.

District counselor Abbey Rius now works with high school students to help them when applying for college and landing scholarships. Last year, Rius worked with only elementary school students.

District officials hope to receive a federally funded grant this year that would help prepare students for undergraduate studies. The funds also can provide college scholarships to low-income students.

About 68 percent of Lowell’s more than 250 students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch.

“It’s not that our kids don’t want to go to college,” Superintendent Walt Hanline said. “They just don’t know how.”

During the last year, the district invested $1.9 million to renovate its elementary and high school buildings, revamp its lunch menu, hire four new teachers and update district technology. Most of the money has come from private and state loan programs that the district will pay back using dollars from the property-tax-supported general fund.

Full-day kindergarten and after-school study halls are now offered to students. The district also opened its first charter school — Mountain View Academy — which has brought back some Lowell students who left the district to attend private school, the charter’s director, Laurie Cardwell, said.

Some students say they’re proud that academics — rather than sports — is now becoming a focus at the high school.

“It’s nice to have people actually care about our education and are willing to help us,” Kaysey said.

Many students in Rius’ new leadership class have tentative plans to go to college. Many say they plan to return to their small town after graduating.

Hanline, 63, said he wants to create more connections for students with nearby colleges and universities.

Just 50 percent of students who graduated in the 2010-11 school year — the most recent data available — went on to attend a community college or university. Statewide, 61 percent of students moved on to higher education.

This year, Lowell students will go on field trips to visit local college campuses. They also have the option of earning college credit in their advanced courses, and they can earn Lane Community College credit in some health, medical and geography courses.

The catalyst

Hanline, a part-time superintendent who also serves as executive director of the National Center for Executive Leadership and School Board Development, came to the district in July 2013 from California.

Hanline was named California’s superintendent of the year twice, in 1995 and 2007. An elementary school is named after him in California’s Ceres Unified School District, which he led for nine years.

The semi-retired administrator moved to Eugene earlier this year and later applied for the open job in Lowell.

Lowell’s K-12 principal, Kay Graham, said Hanline helped “get the ball rolling” on many of the district’s projects. She said the school board also has been supportive.

“They are doers and people who can get things done,” Graham said of the board. “Everyone stepped up.”

Most of the district’s construction projects have been funded through private and state loan programs, Hanline said, although the district will spend up to $30,000 in general fund reserves this year. The district will pay $155,000 annually for the work, likely over a 20-year period, he said.

The district also gets up to $200,000 annually for leasing part of its elementary school building to the charter school, he said, and will use some of that revenue to pay off its loans.

Community members also have donated money for smaller projects, such as landscaping, he said.

The money paid, among other things, to insulate the elementary and high schools, remove dry rot and asbestos, and replace the siding on the high school, while still retaining its 1930s ambience.

The district held an open house earlier this month to show off the new buildings to parents. Hanline said many parents had “swelled chests.”

“They can for the first time feel proud of these schools,” he said.

Raising the bar

The school board considered six years ago placing a bond measure on the ballot to replace the high school, board member Suzanne Kintzley said. The estimated cost was $13 million, and board members didn’t think the community would support — or could afford — the tax bills.

Kintzley said that in order to retain teachers during tougher budget times, the district avoided making improvements to buildings. The schools’ roofs were so bad that teachers used garbage cans and buckets in the hallway to catch water, she said.

Graham said she’s been working with teachers to give them more training opportunities to improve curriculum and strengthen lesson plans. Teachers now have a room at the elementary school for trainings.

Graham — who previously worked in Cottage Grove and Eugene — has invited skilled math and English teachers from her previous school districts to work with Lowell teachers. Teachers will work individually with students, looking at their grades to make sure they’re on the right path, Graham said.

“Every kid has an opportunity to be successful,” Graham said. “A ‘D’ is not good enough. They need to be getting into the ‘B’ and ‘A’ range.”

Hanline said he’s starting to put together an alumni database to show students that Lowell graduates have moved on to successful careers. For example, philanthropist Nils Hult — for whom the Hult Center for the Performing Arts was named — was a Lowell graduate.

Other students have earned full-ride scholarships to the University of Oregon.

“Where do our kids go out of Lowell High School?” Hanline asked. “People have the idea they go no place.”

“Lowell is not a hokey little district,” he said. “It’s a district on the move that’s producing quality kids.”

You can follow Josephine on Twitter @j_woolington