Every Building Tells a Story

I like to drive by schools when I visit a new town. It’s a way I get a sense of a community. Last weekend, I visited Eastern Oregon for the first time. Our hosts own 20 acres, which they farm for alfalfa that they sell to Japan. The have chickens, goats, a large garden. They both have full-time professional jobs. In short, they are financially secure. One of our hosts bristled a little when I asked about the schools. “They’re fine,” she said. She added pointedly, “I went to them.”

Amidst a glorious landscape, I saw a more complicated story.

Farmland with backdrop of mountains

The breathtaking view



Here’s what else I saw.




A cluster of prefab buildings

The Grade 4-5 school comprised mostly of prefab buildings


Small-paned school gym windows peppered with holes-- from stones or buckshot

The 4-5 school gym windows, peppered with holes from stones or buckshot



Front of new school building

The new K-3 elementary school that just opened. This is the first school the district has opened since 1921. A $15M grant from a private foundation helped make it possible. A private foundation!


I took a quick trip through the statistics I could find. A big caveat: I distrust what test actually measure. But for an educator doing a driveby, they offer some clues.

82% of the district students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

In the last testing year, in the upper elementary school

26% were considered math proficient. State average: 42%

43% were considered ELA proficient. State average: 55%

74% were considered science proficient. State average: 63% (Go school!)

7% of disabled students were considered proficient in math; 18% in English. State average for disabled students statewide is 42% and 18% respectively.

Breaking it down by race is interesting.

68% of students are Hispanic; 29% White.

Level 4 is the state target. You may not be surprised to learn that about 52% of the White kids achieved Level 3 in ELA; about 30% of the Hispanic kids did. Holding their own at Level 1 were disabled and ELLs.

In math, 40% of the White kids were at Level 3; 21% of the Lations were at Level 2; solidly at Level 1 were the disabled and ELLs.

The number of students in the district who take the tests in high school is significantly lower than the number who take them in lower grades. I bet the other kids have been enrolled in private schools.

I started to try to find rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment– to me, those are the natural outcomes of such dismal education numbers.  But I realized I wouldn’t be able to draw correlations or even get a whiff of causality, so I stopped.

What do I make of all this?

The research about rural access to the internet shows that many families have none, either because they can’t afford it or because there is no infrastructure to enable it (wires and cables). I’m betting school is the place where many of these kids can access the wider horizons of the World Wide Web.

My ideas about education are woefully inadequate and inaccurate when it comes to rural American. Bottom line, it is colored by my white privilege, including my East Coast perspectives.

Betsy DeVos needs to visit Indian Reservations and rural farming communities before she starts touting her vision for American schools.

The state of education in Oregon overall really is abysmal.

There are many topics we need to see represented in nationwide discussions about education.

Finally, it’s not only urban teachers who need our support. Teachers in rural school districts are just as important, just as deserving, and maybe more likely to be flying solo simply because of our ignorance.

It’s time for that to change.




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4 responses to “Every Building Tells a Story”

  1. These photos are so revealing! What a great way to get perspective on an area. I really appreciate your honest reflections – this, in particular: “My ideas about education are woefully inadequate and inaccurate when it comes to rural American.”

    • Karen says:

      Thanks, Maureen. As I wrote, I kept asking myself “so what?” And I realized my so what had to start with me. Isn’t that always the way with learning? 😉

  2. Connie Knapp says:

    I think that rural poverty is often invisible. In the late 1960’s I was a student at SUNY New Paltz. I often drove through an area of literal shacks, the kind of thing that I had only seen on TV. This was where the migrant workers were living–they came up to pick the apples seasonally.
    I was surprised and often shocked.
    Since then I have had the opportunity to visit many Native American reservations and have been equally shocked.
    Anyone who assumes that the only place people are poor is in the inner cities needs to take a road trip.
    What we are doing to our children is a sin. As simple as that. We don’t pay teachers enough, we don’t educate our children well, the rich pull their kids out and send them to private school and then “resent” that they have to pay school taxes (well not all the rich but one person who feels that way is one too many).
    Okay, rant over. Thanks for the photographs–they tell the story.
    Love your blog, love your thoughts.

    • Karen says:

      That’s a chilling image, Connie— very different from the bucolic area the College or Chamber of Commerce would prefer us to see. Is it a sign of aging that we are so much more aware of darkness in the world now than when we were young? I’m just glad to know you’re out there. Thanks.

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