School veteran takes administrative job

Benny Westcott

There’s a new face in the Sweet Home School District’s administrative office, although most may find it familiar.

Barb Riggs, a 20-year district veteran, has become its new Director of Teaching & Learning, replacing Rachel Stucky, who became the Mt. Angel School District 91 superintendent in the spring.

Announcing this administrative reshuffling, Sweet Home’s then-superintendent, Tom Yahraes, wrote in a district-wide email, “Barbi brings an impressive depth of knowledge to the position of director of teaching and learning. She is a steadfast advocate for ensuring high levels of learning for every student.

“During her time here, Riggs has led and participated in a wide range of leadership activities,” he continued. “Recently, these have included district-level representation on the Academic Leadership Team, the Licensed Professional Growth and Evaluation committee, District Strategic Plan, community engagement forums, and multiple textbook adoption committees.”

The longtime educator graduated from high school in Montesano, Wash., in 1984. She earned her bachelor of science degree in education at Western Oregon University in 2004, then collected her master’s degree in education from Northwest Christian University in 2014 and her administrative license at the University of Oregon in 2015.

Riggs began her career in Sweet Home as a classified teacher at Foster Elementary School from 1997 to 2000. Following that, she taught first grade at Hawthorne Elementary School for 11 years before serving as its principal from 2016-2020. Currently, she’s taking continuing administrators classes.

In her new job, the longtime educator has shifted primarily to helping teachers succeed. Specifically, she’ll work on curriculum development and to make its delivery more effective.

“The focus this year is to observe, assess and analyze teaching practices,” she said. “We will be working closely with faculty to improve and modify curriculum to stay up-to-date on new research-based methods.”

Among modifications currently in the works are alterations in K-8 social studies as well as supplements to English and language arts programs – what Riggs called a “foundational subject for children” at the elementary-school level.

The Teaching and Learning department is also in charge of designing and implementing faculty development programs, including a mentor program that supports new teachers. And there are plenty of the latter; Riggs estimates more than 20 fresh faces district-wide.

Reading from a program booklet, she said, “New teachers are expected to perform the same duties as veteran teachers from the moment they step into the classroom. They are expected to perform a variety of roles such as educator, motivator, guide, counselor, coach and manager, to name a few. New teachers are often expected to sponsor extra-curricular activities and serve on school committees. The enormity of it all can be overwhelming.”

That’s where a mentor comes in, to bridge the gap between a new educator’s academic-learned instructional theory and the reality of teaching students.

Riggs didn’t have a mentor when she started, so she shares personal stories with new teachers about her first-year struggles, which included learning to fill out bus forms, preparing for conferences and questions regarding insurance. Now, she said, “It’s great to have someone walk beside you and support and give you guidance in your building.”

She regards the mentorship program as something that could help new teachers assimilate to district practices and work through aspects of their jobs. (Although it’s operated in past years, it was halted temporarily during the pandemic.) After completing and submitting applications, new teachers spend 25 hours per year with veteran teachers; all receive mentor handbooks. Participants meet periodically in teams, collaborating on and discussing their progress.

Supporting new teachers has taken on heightened significance as turnover within the profession becomes commonplace.

“COVID did a number on our career,” Riggs said. “Some teachers ended up pursuing completely different career paths. Pandemic teaching was very different compared to how things normally were. Many teachers were resilient, as they were pushed to their ultimate limits.”

Despite challenges, she said the district “proved that we can reach children in person via distance learning and hybrid teaching.”

As of Friday, Sept. 24, about 145 students and staff in the district were under quarantine from COVID-19, according to a district-wide email. The New Era caught up with Riggs on Oct. 7, a teacher in-service day that found staff members working on extended lesson plans to serve students taking online instruction, as well as those learning in physical schools.

Riggs stressed the importance of looking out for all students, including those required to quarantine.

“We want the kids who are learning from home to be able to do the same work that’s being done in the classrooms,” she said. “The kids that are in quarantine, we want to check in to see if they’re OK and show that we care about them.”

Riggs has been quite busy in her new office. “I haven’t had a minute where there wasn’t a phone ringing or email to answer,” she said, adding that she also takes time to visit other schools in the district.

A large part of her new department’s mission, she said, is to examine student data and determine plans to reteach and support those who aren’t at the grade level they should be in academics.

She also stressed how important it was for them to understand what and why they’re learning, and to give teachers tools and guidance for assessing whether they’re retaining this information.

Recently, the father of a Sweet Home High School junior called to ask why his son wasn’t being taught to write in cursive. Riggs responded that the Oregon Department of Education didn’t include that as part of the curriculum.

When she taught first grade, however, it was. And when the parent introduced himself during the phone call, Riggs realized that the child in question had been in her class all those years ago. She told the parent she’d write the student a cursive note explaining that his old first-grade teacher wanted a response in the style they’d worked on a decade prior.

Riggs said her goal as director of teaching and learning is to “move the dial for all of our Sweet Home School District students, and focus on their social and emotional learning. We want to prepare them to be thriving citizens.”

Working in a non-school building, she added, “I miss the pitter-patter of little feet and recess bells ringing out. This is completely different work, but it’s valuable work. I know I’ve made a difference in the lives of many students, but this position allows me to really make a difference district-wide.”