Richards takes helm at her second mid-valley charter school

Benny Westcott

Audrey Richards is charting a new course, but not abandoning her current one.

In August, the longtime local educator took over as principal of Sweet Home Charter School – the same position she’s held for eight years at Sand Ridge Charter School’s south main campus in Lebanon (which houses kindergarten through second-grade classes; a Sodaville location covers K-8).

She’s up to handling both responsibilities, but, as she said with a laugh, “It’s a little busy.”

In Sweet Home, she replaces Jeff Tompkins, who taught at the K-6 institution for four years before serving as its principal for two. He left for a position closer to his home in Eugene.

Richards became interim principal following his resignation after a replacement couldn’t be found due to, as she explained, a “labor shortage” and “charter schools being a little different.”

“Little” turns out to be the key word, because the biggest difference between charter and regular public schools, according to Richards, is their smaller sizes. Capped at 20 students apiece, classes are taught by a full-time assistant as well as a full-time teacher.

“We keep the curriculum the same throughout the grades as much as we can,” she said.

“All of our teachers know all of the grades and how it all works. I know where all of the teachers are at in their teaching. It comes down to the smaller class sizes. We have a very high ratio of one-on-one interaction.”

The charter school can also move students from their age group into a more appropriate academic grade level.

“If we have a fourth-grader who can do sixth-grade math, we move them to sixth-grade math,” she said. “If we have a first-grader reading at a third-grade level, we put them at the third-grade level. We’re small enough that we can do that. We can place them where we want them to be and meet them where they are.”

(She also highlighted a focus on character traits. A “virtue a week” program emphasizes values such as friendship, truthfulness and honesty.)

Richards was born in Lebanon but moved to the small town of Wickes, Arkansas, at a young age. She returned to Oregon for her junior year of high school, graduating from the Sweet Home School District.

She began her career in education in 1995 as a special-education assistant at Crawfordsville Elementary School, where both of her children, Brock Cota and Lauren Parks, were students at the time. Prior to that she was an aerobics instructor at Linn-Benton Community College.

She remained at Crawfordsville for two years before finding work as an educational assistant at the now-defunct Brownsville Academy in 1997. She made the switch to Sand Ridge Charter School’s south main campus in 2001. She taught first grade at the school for five years, then served as curriculum director for eight years. Finally, she became its principal in the fall of 2014. She graduated from Ashford University, an online school, in 2015 with a degree in early childhood education.

Describing the transition from teaching to administration, Richards said, “You miss your classroom, but it’s also great because you get to see all of the kids.”

And “all of the kids” have largely been present during the COVID-19 pandemic at Sweet Home Charter School, which, she reported, is doing well. The school boasts full enrollment, with its seven classrooms at capacity. Classes are taught in person, as they were for most of last year.

“We’ve stayed in school,” she said. “We haven’t had any quarantines over there yet.

“I’m so lucky because it’s an amazing staff there. They know their jobs. And the new teachers we have hired this year have been great, with mentor teachers helping them. They come together as a team, and their main concern is the kids.”

As for the future, the new principal is sticking with the basics.

“My No. 1 goal is to keep us healthy and in school,” she said. “It’s just so important.”

Richards currently lives in Tangent. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, camping and spending time with her five grandchildren.