August Johnson works on a garden vegetable survey at John Muir Elementary School. MT file photo - Julia Moore

Ashland's high marks a team effort

Ashland school officials are crediting hard-working students, teachers and parents at all grade levels for the top performance ratings the district earned in the most recent Oregon school report cards.

Four of the district's six schools achieved a Level 4 in the new five-tier system. The other two, Ashland High School and John Muir Elementary, hit the pinnacle by performing in the top 10 percent of schools statewide.

It takes the commitment of teachers, students and their parents from kindergarten through 12th grade to score such high marks, said Michelle Zundel, principal at Ashland High.

"The success of the high school really builds on all their work," Zundel said. "It's a team effort and a team process."

Zundel said the Ashland community as a whole recognizes and supports education. Only 30 percent of Ashland adults have students in the district, which means the vast majority of those supporting levies and bond measures are doing so because they understand the importance of public education, Zundel said.

"They care so deeply about the world of ideas," she said. "There is a community culture that values education."

John Muir is a magnet school offering K-8 instruction in four multi-age classrooms, said Susan Hollandsworth, the school's new principal. It has been recognized as a "model" school by the Oregon Department of Education — one with a high poverty rate that has shown successful student outcomes.

With an enrollment of just 101, 50 percent of the students are at poverty level. And 45 percent qualify for the federal meals program, she said.

The school favors an "inquiry-based" method of teaching which is enhanced by hands-on learning in a natural environment. Students spend Monday through Thursday in the classroom studying school academics. Fridays they head outside the classroom. The younger students go to Lithia Park, the older ones to an outdoor education center in the Greensprings, she said.

"They go rain or shine, snow and sleet," Hollandsworth said. "We just bundle them up."

Reconnecting children with the outdoors has a positive effect on their lives and their learning, Hollandsworth said. The nature-themed learning environment provides opportunities to explore the world while applying lessons in life sciences, art and music, she said.

"It's the whole-child approach to learning," Hollandsworth said.

The four teachers have a collaborative team approach to choosing their themes of study. This semester's theme is insects. Age-appropriate lessons revolve around the world of insects — from life stages to ecology to species differences across the nation, Hollandsworth said.

"Their next theme is social justice," Hollandsworth said, adding the children draw on what they have learned previously, and apply it to new learning.

Ashland prides itself on connection between the students and their teachers. Three days out of the school year are allocated to face-to-face parent/teacher conferences at the various schools, Zundel said.

Ashland High requires a student-led conference. Students, their advisers and their parents meet to discuss their progress to ensure goals are met, she said.

"And we have nearly 100 percent participation," Zundel said.

Freshmen are assigned to an advisory teacher who will track with them for their entire four years, said Samuel Bogdanove, the district's student services director.

The practice creates an ongoing relationship for the student with a caring educator who understands his or her life goals and educational needs, he said.

Additionally, each incoming freshman class is divided into three groups that will attend an introductory overnight in August prior to the start of the school year. The freshmen in each group will take social studies classes together. Juniors and seniors also attend the series of three field trips, acting as mentors to the younger students, Bogdanove said.

"It gives them a chance to know each other as human beings," he said.

Zundel, a member of the area's state accreditation team, is proud of the district's performance. But said she is always looking for ways to improve Ashland schools.

Zundel seeks out schools that are exceeding even Ashland's high performance levels, and asks them to share their successes.

"We need to be collaborative and do what works," she said, adding she encourages collaborations between Ashland schools and Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University.

Zundel would also like to see Ashland, and schools across the nation, do a better job teaching a second language. The only truly bilingual students who graduate from U.S. schools are those who entered them already speaking another language, she said.

"We can always improve," Zundel said. "We'd like to see more money budgeted, extend the class day and year and smaller class sizes."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email

Share This Story