McLoughlin Middle School eighth-grader Brynn Allen sees it simply: If students feel welcomed at her school, they'll want to come to it.
"Sometimes people have rough lives and school is their escape," she says, recalling a phase in seventh grade where she was struggling personally. "It kind of felt like everyone was there. It was like a welcoming center."
School culture may be harder to quantify than academic achievements, but McLoughlin leaders say thought, heart and data spurred their multifaceted efforts to create a supportive environment. Last week, they presented to district officials what they say are the academic fruits of those efforts to boost kindness, inclusivity and, perhaps most importantly, hope, within its old building.
McLoughlin, nestled into a rounded corner where four different streets meet in west Medford, checks boxes that Principal Linda White says don't need to limit student achievement — but that she knows impact the approach needed to foster it. It's a Title I-A school; about 78 percent of its students are from low-income households, enough that free breakfast and lunch are available to all. A presentation given to the School Board Feb. 12 noted that 54 students have been identified as homeless and 132 students have an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which covers a wide range of educational special needs. Of those 132 students, 28 are also English learners.
White, who left an assistant principal position at North Medford High School to take her first job at a middle school, decided to make change first among the staff. Her initiatives were simple but firm: streamlining communication, restructuring meetings. But on a deeper level, she says she wanted to raise the level of hope in what the staff and students could achieve together.
"We started with, if this school were at its very best, what would it look like? What would it feel like? What would it sound like?" she says. "How would people be interacting?"
Those discussions about the possible began to take shape. Teachers coordinated to implement similar structures in classes across every subject: They started getting students out of their chairs during transitions from activity to activity and started making them busy with an activity in the first few minutes of class. Some teachers have students switch seats on a regular basis to ensure they meet and work with more of their classmates. Staff meetings became opportunities for teachers to discuss what worked, what hadn't and what new things they could try.
Mark Happeny, a social studies teacher at McLoughlin since 2011, says trust remains a key aspect of maintaining a culture of hope.
"Our mojo here at (McLoughlin) is awesome," he says. "When a kid comes in and talks about another teacher, I trust that teacher is doing what they're going to. Doesn't mean I'm not going to be empathetic with the kid ... but again, that trust that we have with Linda, that trust that we have with the kids? It means I can do my job."
Teachers and staff also launched several after-school and summer programs, which, beyond ensuring that some students have a third meal to eat, also helps expand their vision beyond the classroom. Those options now include a school spirit club, a STEM club, a coding club, or an after-school study hall, none of which existed just a few years ago.
Changing the atmosphere in the halls and classroom wasn't the only goal, however — McLoughlin staff sought impacts on academic performance. At a Medford School Board work session Feb. 12, White, Assistant Principal Charity Macleod, Eighth-Grade Dean Jeremy Hamasu and Title I-A Coordinator Karinn Calhoun reported improvements in student achievement, which they credit to the changes they've made.
The Oregon average and the average among "like schools" (other Title I schools) provide two key comparisons for a single-year academic snapshot. Data from the Oregon Department of Education show that McLoughlin is now outperforming both groups in all three subject areas: English language arts, science and, for the first time last year, math. At McLoughlin in 2017, 60.9 percent of students met or exceeded state Smarter Balanced assessment standards in English language arts, compared with 55.2 percent across Oregon and 48.4 at like schools.
White, a former math teacher, says there's still improvement to be made in that subject despite increases: 42 percent of McLoughlin students compared with 41.9 percent in Oregon and 35.8 percent at like schools still means less than half of students are meeting standards for math.
Seeing a need for improvement is acceptable to her; it's looser standards that she refuses to consent to.
"It's not OK to have low expectations," she says. "Loving 'em into mediocrity. We're not doing that."
On a given morning, she might be working at her computer underneath the paper display spelling out "KINDNESS" on the wall. But when the bell signals passing period, White is likely to be on the move — somewhere in the halls, greeting all the students who make eye contact and leaning towards the ones who refuse to until they do, too.
"Nurturing the culture of a school is like any other relationship," she says. "It's fragile and it takes time. People need to know each other, talk to each other."
Posters with messages about kindness or gratitude — designed in McLoughlin black and yellow — line the hallways. As academic achievement has climbed, behavioral referrals have also gone down. The school had 2,331 in the 2013-2014 school year; it closed 2016-2017 with 766, White says.
This year's school theme is "Ohana," the Hawaiian word for "family." While English teacher Adam Drew says he thinks this can be a cliché in educational environments, McLoughlin stands out to him.
"It is what this school does better than any school I've ever seen — by far. It's not even close," he says. "No matter what you do, who you are, where you come from ... We're going to hold you to expectations, but we're going to support you and we're going to help you non-stop. And you can throw anything at us that's negative, any anger you've got inside, any apathy, whatever as a student and you can do that every day. But we're still going to come back the next day and be there for you. And I think the kids here feel that and understand it."
— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.