Highland Elementary principal Christi Cheever watches as Callie Williams, 8, shows her progress on a computer math program Wednesday March 13, 2019. (Fred Joe/Special to Salem Reporter)

Christi Cheever’s office at Highland Elementary School has room for little more than her desk.

The principal’s cramped quarters sit in the second-floor office of the three-story brick school that is more than a century old.

An adjoining door connects Cheever’s office to the school nurse’s room, meaning anytime a student is sent there with a stomach bug, Cheever can hear the details.

It’s a quirk of her building the experienced principal laughs off, though she’s frequently outside her office, greeting some of the school’s 375 students in the halls or helping them with exercise breaks when regular behavioral staff are busy.

 Her job?

“To make sure adults are doing okay and that translates to kids,” she said.

Cheever hasn’t always felt as calm in her school. She came to Highland in 2012, a year of transition in education for the district and state.

That year, Salem-Keizer opened Chávez Elementary in east Salem and other schools were losing teachers to the new campus.

It was also the first year Oregon report cards began looking beyond students’ test scores and emphasizing growth -- how much individual students improve their test scores year to year.

When results were posted the following fall, Highland scored among the lowest schools in the state in both reading and math growth. Cheever, a new principal, felt like she’d failed.

“I apologized officially to Olga and said, ‘I think I just ruined your school,’” Cheever said, referring to Olga Cobb, the school’s previous principal, who now works for the district.

Now, Highland is one of the best-performing high poverty schools in Salem-Keizer for student growth. Students at the school, year over year, improve their scores more than about 65% of their peers in Oregon.

The number of students meeting state standards is still low, though higher than at most district schools with similar demographics. Last year, about one-third passed reading assessments and one-fifth passed math.

“Each year we have seen growth continuously,” Cheever said. And growth rates, relative to the rest of Oregon, have increased for the past three years.

How do staff explain the school’s relative success? Many point to stability.

Second-grade teacher Becky Montgomery, who’s taught at Highland for about 25 years, said Cheever’s past as a classroom teacher helped her support staff in a way few other principals have.

Student behavior is less of a disruption in the school because teachers feel they can ask for help from Cheever and other building staff and keep their classrooms under control, she said.

“I have taught here when we didn’t have that support. You feel like you take it all on yourself,” she said.

Though she’s had times where she’s had to stop a lesson to deal with a student’s behavior, those instances are rare. “I am able to teach,” she said.

Becky Montgomery, Highland Elementary 2nd grade teacher, hands out headphones to students before a computer math exercise (Fred Joe/Special to Salem Reporter)

While many high-poverty schools struggle with high teacher turnover, Highland has had a relatively stable group of classroom teachers during Cheever’s time at the school, district staff records show. Montgomery said she’s noticed that as a teacher, and it’s reflected in the relative experience of her peers at the school. On average, the school’s 21 teachers have been in the classroom 13 years, district records show.

“It’s a really good place to teach and that’s why people stay,” Montgomery said.

Teacher experience isn’t a perfect proxy for effectiveness. But the learning curve for teachers who are new to the classroom is steep, and more experienced teachers often have an easier time managing challenging behavior from students.

Montgomery said she feels better able to handle disruptive students in part because she’s had a chance to learn what works through years of trial and error.

The effects of staff turnover tend to multiply as well, Cheever and Montgomery said. If one second grade teacher leaves in a year, the other two or three can get a new hire up to speed quickly on the school’s systems for tracking student growth and planning lessons.

If two or three teachers leave, that task becomes much harder.

“You don’t realize how many things are in place until you do have to explain it to someone new,” Montgomery said.

But the school still has its challenges.

Located just north of downtown Salem in a neighborhood sharing its name, Highland has the third-highest poverty rate of any Salem-Keizer elementary school, with about 90% of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

Like most high-poverty schools in Oregon, students come into Highland recognizing fewer letters of the alphabet and fewer English sounds than their peers in more affluent areas.

Montgomery spends most of her day teaching the whole class, but also works daily in a small group with students who are reading at a first-grade level. On a recent Thursday, she sat with three quiet children at a table, holding a spiral notebook with words in large text.

She pointed to “have” and asked the students to repeat the word. They hesitated, sounding unsure.

“Oh, we’re a little slow on that one. My turn: have,” she said.

Then she pointed back at the group: “Your turn.”

This time, the group was more confident: “Have!”

“Spell have,” Montgomery prompted. That too, the three students knew.

A larger group of about six who were not quite as far behind worked with an instructional aide, taking turns reading aloud from a book about the Gingerbread Man.

The students who are reading at a second-grade level or higher worked on tablets at their desks, going through a computer program that adjusts its questions to the students’ skill level.

The school’s poverty rate hasn’t changed much in the time Cheever’s been at the school. Racial demographics, though, are changing as some nearby rentals have gained new owners who operated different housing programs, Cheever said.

The student body has shifted over the past five years to just over half Latino, down from nearly three-quarters. White students are now about one-third of the school.

About 40% of last year’s students were learning English, and that number also has been falling. Most grades at Highland have one bilingual class, taught in a mix of English and Spanish, and two are English-language classes.

Cheever said the makeup of students learning English is changing too. When she started at Highland, nearly all spoke Spanish. That’s still the most common native language for students learning English, but the number of Marshallese and Chuukese speakers has grown.

The school has a significant achievement gap between white and Latino students, especially in its reading scores: 35% of white students passed reading tests last year, compared with just over one-quarter of Latinos and one-quarter of English learners. But the overall number of kids passing assessments hasn’t changed much, even as the student body has gotten whiter.

Student improvement from year to year, however, is the area where Highland has improved the most since Cheever took over. And on both math and reading, it’s an area where Latinos and English language learning students outperform white students consistently.

Staffing isn’t the only area where Highland enjoys more stability than some of its peer schools. The school has had bilingual classes from kindergarten through fifth grade since 2006, something other schools in the district have struggled to maintain.

Bilingual students begin kindergarten speaking Spanish nearly all the time, with a block of time set aside each day for instruction in English. Each year, the amount of Spanish used in class decreases and the amount of English increases, with the goal of sending kids to middle school who are fluent in both languages.

Offering those classes for six grades requires a lot of bilingual staff. Other elementary schools in Salem struggled to find enough staff to offer bilingual classes beyond third grade until Superintendent Christy Perry put district funds into finding and training local bilingual teachers.

Students file out the front door at Highland Elementary (Fred Joe/Special to Salem Reporter)

Annalivia Palazzo-Angulo, executive director of the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, said quality bilingual education with effective teachers from kindergarten to fifth grade is “the only way we’re really going to see a bigger difference” at schools serving first-generation immigrant Latino families where kids’ first language is Spanish.

The coalition works with mostly Latino families to boost student achievement through classes with parents. In instances where bilingual classes ended halfway through elementary school, she said students ended up going from a classroom where the majority of instruction was in Spanish to one where everything was in English. That hurt their confidence and academic progress, she said.

Highland has for three years used a math curriculum that many elementary schools in Salem are just getting this year.

Across the district and Oregon, fewer students typically meet math standards than reading, and principals at other elementary schools said the lack of a math curriculum geared toward Common Core standards has made getting students ready difficult.

“Having a consistent resource is a huge help,” Cheever said.

Cheever’s focus over her time as principal has been improving instruction within the school. Now, she’s turning her focus more to attendance, where Highland has one of the lowest rates in the district.

She also wants the school to provide more “extras” for kids that entice them to feel at home in the building. They’re starting an after school role-playing game club this spring, she said, and have a running club and choir.

She’s also working with the Marion-Polk Early Learning Hub to reach out to childcare and preschool providers in the neighborhood and start talking with parents earlier about getting their kids ready for kindergarten.

Cheever said the school’s biggest success lies in teamwork.

“I take pride in our school climate and our staff climate,” she said.

This is part four of a five-part series examining the Salem-Keizer School District's most challenged elementary schools.

Part 1: Salem schools struggle with shifting politics, challenging demographics, lagging students

Part 2: Four Corners educators fight the odds to boost student literacy

Part 3: Hallman Elementary turns federal money into student success

More about the series.

Coming tomorrow: In spite of the efforts by educators, Salem-Keizer's high-poverty schools perform on average worse than others in Oregon, even when accounting for the high number of students learning English. From inconsistent curriculum to a focus on bilingual learning, district leaders share what they think accounts for those gaps - and how they want to do better.

If you have questions or comments, please email them to rachel@salemreporter.com.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.

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