SHHS alum named state’s top assistant principal

Sweet Home High School alumna Julie (Dimick) Lafayette has been named Oregon’s Assistant Principal of the Year by the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators.

Lafayette who has been assistant principal at Taft High School in Lincoln City since February of 2008, has been a state leader in proficiency-based education, an approach that has made a big difference at Taft, according to Principal Scott Reed, who nominated her for the award.

“She’s done a tremendous job for us,” Reed said. “She’s an expert in proficiency-based education and she’s moving the whole school toward that.”

Dimick graduated from Sweet Home High School in 1982 after a record-setting career in track and cross-country. She went to Western Oregon State College, where she continued her running career and earned a degree in English. She later earned an administrator’s credential from Portland State University.

“My focus has been curriculum and instructional improvement,” she said.

When her two children, Luke, now 20, and Amber, 18, were young, Lafayette spent a few years as a school improvement consultant. In 1990 she earned a master’s degree in elementary education from Western Oregon.

She worked as an English as a Second Language teacher and as an assistant to the curriculum director in the Woodburn School District, and coordinated the ESL program in Mount Angel before taking a job as an assistant principal at Jefferson County Middle School.

“My focus there was school improvement,” Lafayette said. “Since 1990 that’s kind of been my focus and area. I enjoy research. I do a lot of research in what are the best instructional practices for teachers and in school development.”

While working for the Jefferson School District, she was assigned to direct the creation of a new proficiency-based small school. To do so, she spent a year researching and visiting National Blue Ribbon Award recipient schools “from Rhode Island to California.”

“It was ideal,” she said. “I got to study schools but also study the research.”

However, after plans for the school were completed, the Jefferson school board killed the project, saying they couldn’t afford to open the new school.

“It was not a good situation, after all the work was done,” Lafayette said. “The good part of it was that I got to do a lot of research and really study the proficiency-based model.”

She said her efforts weren’t wasted, though. When she got to Taft, she was able to implement many of the ideas she had developed.

“I’ve been implementing the proficiency-based model here,” she said. “We’re one of a few schools in Oregon doing the proficiency based model and we’re probably one of most progressive in the model.”

Proficiency-based learning differs from traditional education in that grades are given based on student performance €“ passing a series of tests or other types of learning assessments €“ rather than on “seat time,” as Lafayette puts it.

“Under the traditional system, if a student goes to class and spends time in class, they are going to get an A, B, C, D, F grade,” she said. “In the proficiency model, the measure we use for students is based on state standards. All our students have assessments on all the state standards (for learning).”

She said that when a student proves he or she has mastered a particular area of learning, they move on to the next level. If they don’t pass, they take it over.

“At our school students have to have 70 percent or higher (in meeting standards),” Lafayette said. “We do not have D’s or F’s. Our motto is that failure is not an option. If a student gets an incomplete (because he or she failed to meet a standard), they have the rest of the year to make up that incomplete. We individualize. We tell the student what they have not passed and they keep working on that until they pass.”

She said the process is similar to the one-room schoolhouse of days gone by, in which each student proceeded largely at his or her own pace.

One area in which the proficiency-based approach is particularly evident is foreign languages. Taft has purchased Rosetta Stone programs in “at least a dozen languages,” Lafayette said. Students can take Spanish from the school’s full-time Spanish teacher and then they can sign up for Rosetta Stone time and “practice all they want.” Or they can take other languages.

“It’s cool to walk into the on-line room and hear kids speaking different languages,” she said.

One of the key components of the proficiency-based approach is “it’s not sufficient unless they show they’re proficient,”

Lafayette said. “They’re tested two or three times. There has to be sufficient evidence that they’ve learned what they need to know.”

The result, she said, has been “a big increase in accountability. Student performance is rapidly improving.”

Reed, the principal, said the new approach “takes away a lot of artificial barriers.

“A lot of times it’s project-based €“ an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do, not just on a test.” He said that the proficiency approach also opens the doors to internship opportunities and other options.

In the foreign languages area, Lafayette said, the University of Oregon has told Taft that it actually prefers the Rosetta approach because various high school programs incorporate different standards and when students who have learned a language via Rosetta enter the university, it knows exactly where they should be in their knowledge of the language.

She said Taft’s student body comes from a community that is very similar to Sweet Home, socio-economically, and students face many of the same challenges that Sweet Home students do.

She said the faculty are warming to the new approach.

“It’s been a big transition for the teachers, but they seem to be excited at the results,” she said. “The students are changing, becoming more responsible because they have to be.

“It’s pretty exciting. We’d have kids like my own daughter, who can get out early (her daughter Amber graduated last spring), and kids that need to go slower €“ they can slow down and really learn.”

Lafayette will attend various state and national conferences and award presentations as a result of winning the state award. As a state winner, she’s also a nominee for the national award and will be speaking at a couple of conferences over the next few months.

She said she wasn’t expecting any honors when the award announcement came.

“The principal, the superintendent and a couple of teachers completed the application and wrote letters,” she said. “It was a surprise.”

She said she is particularly grateful to her parents, Bill and Bonnie Dimick, who have been “very supportive.” She said their attitude has been “Whatever you want to try, do it.”

Reed said Lafayette “has done a lot to raise expectations” at Taft, which has “been very low-performing” in the past.

“She’s tireless in her efforts to improve learning here at Taft,” he said. “She really lives out what she teaches. She really focuses on what’s best for kids. That’s really where our school is going.”