Future teachers enjoy applied learning in innovative and rural majority-minority school district
Author: Jillian Daley
Posted: October 29, 2019

Kevin Lopez, a fifth-grade leader at North Marion Intermediate School, knows what it means to be a leader.

Kevin said a leader helps people by including them, such as at recess if they’re alone.

“If they’re alone, then they will be sad,” he said, quietly. He makes sure that doesn’t happen.

Kevin was among several fifth-grade leaders to help host a lunch last week for Portland State University College of Education (COE) students, staff, and faculty. On October 25, about 20 visitors from the COE took a bus to the North Marion School District (NMSD) in Aurora. The group perused all four schools (PreK–2 primary, 3–5 intermediate, 6–8 middle, and 9–12 high school) on campus for insight into the district’s innovative programming and unique environment as a rural majority-minority school in Oregon.

All of the COE visitors gleaned insight from the hands-on learning opportunity, but COE faculty members Xander Davies and Karen Kennedy said visiting schools is particularly beneficial for the budding teachers in their college classrooms.

“Students can only learn so much in a college classroom or in a book,” noted Davies, an assistant professor of elementary education and English for speakers of other languages. “Once they step into a K–12 classroom, they can apply what they’re learning.”

“We talk about the possibilities in our classrooms at PSU, but until students set foot in a K–12 classroom, they don’t know for certain what works,” said Kennedy, an assistant professor of practice for the secondary Graduate Teacher Education Program (GTEP).

COE School Partnership Director Gabe Hunter-Bernstein explained that he chose this district for a visit because of its innovative programming, majority-minority student body, and rural setting. It’s different from what many COE students may come to know in their fieldwork in the urban and suburban Portland metro area.

One difference about a smaller, more rural district that struck elementary track GTEP student Cree Nelson is that teachers can alter their curriculum if it isn’t working, in contrast to larger, more structured environments where change can be slower.

“Teachers were able to meet the needs of the students immediately,” Nelson said.

When it comes to innovative programs, one example is the work of NMSD English Learner Coordinator Irma Patton. Patton said her district has about 1,897 K–12 students from Aurora, Broadacres, Butteville, Donald, and Hubbard. Of that number, she said, 315 are English learners, some of whom are lagging behind their peers. Patton wanted to help struggling students, and she knew just how to start: an extended learning opportunity in the early morning for English learners.

Patton sought funding for her program, and in 2018, she was one of only 90 teachers in the nation to receive a $5,000 Social and Emotional Learning Innovation Award for Teachers, a grant courtesy of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, NoVo Foundation, and Education First. To implement her vision last year, Patton enlisted high school mentors to help teach 20 primary students who were English learners.

Nineteen of them advanced so much in their English skills that they no longer required the program, so this year, Patton was able to support another raft of students. It’s one way she is responding to the evolving needs of the once majority-white district where she attended classes herself.

“The community is changing, and that is why we are putting equity work at the forefront of what we are doing to make sure we are serving our community and parents have a voice,” Patton said. “We have to think about what we are doing to change with the change that’s going on around us.”

Her program emphasizes not only language, but social and emotional learning, a focus for the whole district. When feelings overpower students in any grade level, they can take time to identify and manage their emotions through structured activities in the low light of a Zen Den room, or sit for a spell in one of the Calming Corners in classrooms districtwide and self-soothe with fidgets. It’s not about punishment, but peacefulness.

NMSD Director of Special Programs Patrick McArthur said that if kids are calm, they can learn better. Another way to help them grow is to connect with them, “The biggest thing we can do with any kid who is struggling is to build a relationship.”

Elementary track GTEP student Jessica Rybak said that she loved the intentional way the school district approached social and emotional learning.

“They’re so intentional about that and about making the classroom fit the student, not the other way around,” Rybak said. “It gives me new possibilities, ideas for what I could do when I teach in a classroom.”

She had lunch that day with student leaders, including Kevin. Like any good teacher, Rybak began asking him about himself and sparked a connection.


First photo: Students, staff, and faculty gather for a tour at North Marion School District on October 25. Photo by Peyton Knight

Second photo: Attendees pause during their tour of North Marion School District last week. Photo by Cecelia Rodriguez

To share stories about the College of Education, email Jillian Daley.