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home : opinions : opinions August 20, 2017

5/2/2017 1:50:00 PM
The future of our schools
By Tiffany Lee Brown

Could we, the people of Sisters, help the schools bolster their enrollment to increase their funding?

The Nugget's detailed articles about enrollment and funding help us realize what's at stake. To really get involved, it would be great to know how school funding operates in the state of Oregon, what we can expect from the new federal administration, and what regulations our school district is bound by (versus decisions that the local school board has made).

I would welcome an article that explained in simple terms how these things work; a state school board member I spoke with recently could not point me to a resource like that. She was very helpful and sent me some of their internal documents.

What can I say? I was completely overwhelmed. I left with the impression that various overlapping bureaucracies handle the money, and that officially, they leave a lot up to the local school districts. In real life, though, we know that each dollar is somehow attached to students' attendance, and public schools are constrained by legal and ethical requirements to focus resources on helping kids with disabilities and working on remedial learning.

If we understood the system better, community members might be able to help keep our schools desirable and competitive.

As a society we often resist helping those who struggle with poverty, lack of education, or addiction. We vote "yes" on building more prisons and vote no on strengthening the social safety net. Many parents face punishing work schedules and immense caregiving responsibilities. So the schools are only partly about educating our children. They're also compensating for huge inequities that shouldn't exist in the first place. They provide food, medical exams, counseling, stability, and comfort to many children. Is it possible to do all that and be a competitive institution that privileged families support?

Your recent article mentioned a lack of affordable housing in Sisters, which pushes young families out. This is partly due to our town's high numbers of retirees from other, richer cities. Could they become more involved in the schools? And should the Sisters City Council require new developments to make multi-family units and modest middle-class housing part of Phase I, instead of tacking them onto the end of the building process?

The article mentioned competition from innovative out-of-district transfer schools, flexible online programs, and homeschooling. Sisters schools already have some incredible programs: the average student in America isn't learning to write well-crafted songs, make beautiful guitars, and build Habitat for Humanity homes! But the small-group, multi-age classrooms and active, outdoor environmental focus of Black Butte School up in Camp Sherman have attracted a deep waiting list for transfers. Down in Bend, families jostle for a chance at the environmentally focused charter school Realms. Could our elementary school feature an outdoor-oriented sustainability program? Could we offer more flexible options for families, making it logistically easier to combine traditional school attendance with homeschooling, private schooling, and travel?

I've heard teenagers complain of the lack of diversity here in town, wanting to transfer someplace that actively welcomes LGBTQ students and people of color. Could Sisters keep those kids here? Could we as a city make it clear to visitors and citizens alike that these beautiful high desert skies are not just for straight, white people to enjoy?

Safety and health are concerns, too. One family left Sisters Elementary School after the kids repeatedly brought home norovirus, causing the parents to lose many work days; the school did not respond with a modern, updated cleaning protocol. I have a mold allergy, and I can tell you there is definitely mold in the elementary school. If issues like these go unaddressed, then families with the means to do it may go elsewhere.

How can we as a community support even more opportunities for our kids, at these wonderful schools full of devoted teachers and staff, and keep our students here in town?

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