Ex-teacher brings ‘inside’ perspective to School Board

Sean C. Morgan

Toni Petersen is bringing an inside look to Sweet Home School District as she takes her seat on the School Board.

Petersen retired from the district in 2016 after 18 years as a special education learning specialist at Sweet Home High School. Prior to working in Sweet Home, Petersen spent seven years at the old middle school in Lebanon.

She moved to Brownsville in 1991 and then to the Crawfordsville area in 1998 with her husband Rich Petersen. They have one son, Joe Petersen, a junior at Sweet Home High School.

Petersen grew up in Tigard when it was a small town, with a population of just 1,500. Her mother was a teacher. She graduated from Tigard High School, and earned a bachelor of arts in history and a master’s degree in special education at Portland State University.

She lived in Portland and ran a special education classroom for the most emotionally disturbed students, who couldn’t be at Hillcrest or MacLaren Youth Correctional Facilities, at the Christie School on the Marylhurst School campus in West Linn.

Petersen later spent a year at Newberg High School, where she started a program for emotionally disturbed students and three years in Gladstone, working with emotionally disturbed, disabled and severely mentally handicapped students.

“My husband grew up in the Brownsville-Junction City area,” Petersen said. She moved to the area with her two horses and two dogs when they married.

“I love the small town. I like the smaller school districts versus the Portland area.”

Petersen succeeds her neighbor Carol Babcock as representative of the Crawfordsville area on the School Board. She also is a neighbor of Dave VanDerlip, who is a former longtime member of the School Board. Petersen and Babcock talked often about Petersen serving on the School Board.

“I worked for the district, so it wasn’t a possibility,” Petersen said. “Now that I’m retired, I thought maybe I can give back.”

District management has changed since she worked in the district, with Supt. Tom Yahraes beginning the year after she left.

“When I retired, other than my son being in school and dealing with teachers, I really hadn’t looked at what was going on,” Petersen said. “I have heard great things about Tom. I’ve heard good things about the new special education director.

“I’m a person that gets invested really easily. I’m not good at sugar coating things.”

Things move too fast for that, she said. “It’s really important to me (that) the kids that come out of the high school are employable.”

That was among her focuses in special education too, she said. Sweet Home has a large population of special education students, and she has helped them find jobs – or given them jobs.

“They worked for me on our ranch (where she has 30 horses),” she said. Helping her raise Appaloosas and board horses, one of her first Sweet Home students continues to work for her five days a week in the evenings.

Petersen said she likes the high school’s new employability scores, which track traits important to employment, particularly dependability.

A large group of students have not gleaned those kinds of skills from their parents, she said, and they need assistance.

She thinks the district needs to bring in more training for teachers, and it needs to include support staff as well, Petersen said. “In many cases, the support staff spend more time with students than teachers.”

While she was working, the district had some people, like educational consultant Randy Sprick, primary author for “Safe and Civil Schools,” provide training on social interaction to help boost attendance, for example. The district needs to focus on training like that, improving personal contact between staff and students.

The district’s new career and technical education classes, a marketing and business program and a natural resources program, are steps in the right direction, Peterson said, although the high school needs to make sure that students who are taking them can get the credits they expect.

Told the forestry program would provide a science credit, her son later learned it wouldn’t and would be counted as an elective, she said.

Her other focus is teacher attendance, Petersen said, noting that she often heard teachers would be gone two or three days one week and then again another week.

She understands they need training, but “especially low-income” students “bond with their teachers, and they need to be there.”

Substitutes don’t cut it for those students, especially when considering attendance, she said.

“I don’t know that the board can address it. I don’t know how that would get solved.”

But research shows that staff attendance is important to improving student attendance and graduation rates, she said.

“In all the years I worked here, because I come from the inside, I have always felt like the administration was really selective in the teachers they glean information from.”

She said more teachers have good suggestions, ways to save money, better ways to spend money and different ways to spend money.

When she taught, Peterson said, she used to send home cards to her new students, for example. She would include a Dutch Bros. Card or something like that.

“That’s an invitation to those kids to come to school,” she said, noting that teachers and assistants pay thousands of dollars out of their own pockets every year. That included her assistants Dena Wixon and Lisa Gourley, who still works in the district.

“I worked in a classroom with computers that were 20 years old,” Petersen said. Rooms like those need computer updates before the front office, she said. Desks and furniture had names carved into them.

If the district is saving money, teachers and assistants should get the benefits, Petersen said. The way it seems to work is when the district saves money, the superintendent gets a raise, but it’s the teachers and assistants (who are) interacting with the students.

“In the long run, if you have staff that come to work and want to be there every day,” it saves on substitute costs, she said.

Petersen will serve until June 30, which is when Babcock’s term was set to expire. Babcock resigned because she moved out of the area.

“I figure I’ll get my feet wet, see if I like it and I feel like I’m being useful,” Petersen said, and then she’ll decide whether she will run for election in May.