District looks locally for good school leaders

Scott Swanson

Like many school districts, Sweet Home has been on the lookout for teachers in the last couple of years, since the onslaught of COVID-19.

More and more, district administrators are finding them locally.

As this school year begins, depending on how you define “home grown,” of the 26 new teachers to start with the school district, at least 10 are what might be described as home-grown, raised in Sweet Home and products of Sweet Home High School, or already having worked in the district and moving up to, or returning to teaching positions.

“If it’s possible that there’s something positive to come out of COVID, this is one of them,” Supt. Terry Martin said.

As districts scour the state for teachers, Martin said, state education officials have loosened requirements in response to the shortage of instructors.

The Oregon Capital Chronicle reported Aug. 23 that superintendents across the state say they continue to face teacher shortages for certain grades and subjects, including special education and English language teachers, along with shortages of administrators, bus drivers, custodians, and auxiliary staff.

A lack of teachers and other staff has meant that a growing number of students are being taught by substitute teachers and emergency teachers following the COVID shutdowns, which also resulted in an exodus of experienced teachers.

The Chronicle reported that nearly all of Oregon’s 219 school districts and education service districts have applied for a portion of $100 million allocated by the state Legislature this year for staff bonuses. Districts also have had access to $1.7 billion in federal COVID relief money since 2020, of which Oregon has more than $1 billion left to spend. Districts are allowed to use this money to maintain, retain and recruit staff.

In Sweet Home, Martin said, the extra “breathing space” provided by the state in relaxing requirements for teacher hires has allowed the district to “pick up the speed” on efforts to “grow our own.”

“These are folks who are already in the community,” he said. “If we can get them into teaching, there’s a (much) better chance that they’re going to stick around, that they’re not looking to move home to Estacada or wherever, because they’re already home.”

“We are really promoting what we call ‘Grow Your Own,’” said Barbi Riggs, a former Sweet Home teacher and principal who is now the district’s director of teaching and learning.

Riggs said the district recruited new teachers at several job fairs earlier this year, including at Western Oregon University and the Portland Convention Center.

“We reached out to multiple future teachers,” she said. “But word of mouth was our best friend. We ended up talking with families and we’d hear, ‘So and so has just graduated.’”

This year’s crop of “Grow Your Own” teachers include: Tori Clark, a 2017 SHHS graduate, who is teaching sixth grade at Foster; Amanda (Marvin) GaVette, a 2001 SHHS graduate who has returned to Sweet Home from Albany to serve as vice-principal at Sweet Home Junior High; Maddie Hawken, a 2016 SHHS graduate who is teaching language arts and social studies at SHJH; Josalyn (Kittson) Lawrence, a 2007 SHHS graduate, who is a counselor at the high school; Haley May, a 2018 SHHS graduate, who is a counselor at the high school; and Kate (Hawken) Virtue, a 2019 SHHS graduate, who is teaching fourth grade at Foster School.

In addition to those local high school graduates who have grown up in Sweet Home, the district has also scored on some new teachers who have been working in the district while completing their education.

One is Alyson Ellis, who has been an assistant in the special education department at the Junior High School, where Martin was principal until taking over as interim superintendent last spring.

“She’s in progress to finish out her teaching degree,” Martin said. “And so she’s actually getting ready right now to do her student teaching.”

Ellis can do that at the school where she’s already employed, he noted.

“Someone can come in as an aide, and we can help them with tuition reimbursement for schools and then they just keep marching right on through. So, what a great thing for our staff, for our community, for the kids, because these are people that, typically, they know. Coaches, friends, parents, things like that.”

Mark Looney, principal at Sweet Home Junior High, noted that Ellis has been in the district for four years before becoming a teacher.

“She filled a need we had and we had an opportunity to see how wonderful an employee she was,” Looney said. “We knew what we would get when she started.”

Another is Ryan Kildea, who is new to the district, but was a classified staff member in the Philomath School District when Sweet Home snagged him to teach science at the Junior High.

“They ended up hiring one of our teachers,” Looney explained. “Ryan was kind of an unknown, but he’s working for us while going to school.

“We’re growing our own. It’s really helpful, because you know what you’re getting as an employee. It’s like getting a temp employee. We’ve asked people to sub into an aide position and they get to look at the job and we get to see how they work out.”

Then there is Michelle Bradley, who was a classified staffer last year at Hawthorne, and is teaching P.E.

At Oak Heights. Ali Gardner, a longtime teacher in Lebanon, has agreed to teach PE part-time this year at the junior high. Plus, there’s Joni Ortiz, originally from Hawaii, who taught science at Sweet Home Junior High in 2016, then returned to her home state. Now she’s back in Sweet Home, teaching at the high school.

May, who graduated from SHHS in 2018, played golf at Corban University until COVID hit. She’d started out intending to become a math teacher, but changed her mind.

Having experienced “family struggles with addiction” and some “family turbulence” while growing up, she said, she decided to focus instead on counseling psychology with a concentration in addiction and trauma. She graduated last spring and took a job in the “mental health field.”

During the summer she ran into SHHS teacher Tomas Rosa.

“We just started having a normal ‘how are you doing’ conversation and he asked what I was up to.”

Rosa asked if May would be interested in working at the high school.

“I told him that was probably my end goal, but it just seemed too far out of reach,” she said. “I didn’t think I was qualified for the job.”

Rosa didn’t think so, and though “we were kind of laughing about it,” she submitted an application on his urging and had landed the high school position a week later.

May said she was glad she spent some time away from Sweet Home, at Corban.

“But when I got this opportunity, I didn’t realize how happy it would make me,” she said, adding that she thinks she can “help the kids in this town.”

She said she’d really be interested in helping out with the golf team.

But, she said, “I’ve never felt so much love and support than in the time I applied and got the job. The whole town knew before I even knew. I was just getting so many positive texts, posts on Facebook, people excited for me.”

Virtue’s college experience was “kind of a whirlwind,” she said.

A 2019 SHHS graduate, she went to Lane Community College on a track scholarship. Her college track career ended after one meet, with the arrival of COVID.

“My whole world changed. I went to practice and they said, ‘We’re done.’”

She finished at LCC online, got married over the summer to high school classmate Nathan Virtue, then transferred to Western Oregon, also online, where she finished fall term.

“I’d heard a lot of good things about Western Governors University,” she said, adding that Western wasn’t working out very well.

She finished her bachelor’s degree while already teaching Title 1 students at Foster, where she went to school and where her mother Cathy Brands-Hawken taught for many years.

“I can’t stay away, I guess,” Virtue said, adding that she was welcomed with open arms.

“It’s really exciting. Definitely, it was full-circle, coming back,” she said, listing some of her former teachers who are still at the school, including Deanna Neuschwander and Rachel Markell.

“Right away they kind of took me under their wings, mentored me. I love being back.”

Another sort of “home grown” recruit is Evan Teter, son of former Sweet Home Boys & Girls Club Executive Director Bob Teter, who moved to Florence in 2005 to take over the club there. His son has returned to teach PE at Foster School.

Laurel (Curtis) Adams graduated in 2015 from the Academy of Creative Education, a home-schooling program, shortly after her family moved to Sweet Home, and her siblings all attended Sweet Home schools. She is teaching second grade at Oak Heights.

Riggs, who noted that she is “home grown” herself, starting as a classified employee in the district before moving up to teaching, then administration, said such employees tend to stick as well.

“We have realized that these teachers, who have deep roots in Sweet Home, tend to stay and really make a difference,” she said. “They are familiar with a small town.

“I just hope that if you grow up in Sweet Home and go to school in Sweet Home, you want to give back to the community. What a nice thing it is to hear teachers say they are coming home to teach in Sweet Home, to make a difference.”

Said Martin: “It’s a win-win all the way around. They know the schools, they know the community.”