LOWELL — About 20 miles southeast of Eugene, this small town — with a population total of 1,045 — is undergoing some big changes.
While most of the changes have taken place within the school district, a renewed sense of pride reportedly is rippling beyond students and staff and into the community.
Eight new teachers, a freshly renovated charter school, smaller class sizes, a before-school program, laptop computers for every high school student, summer school classes and free breakfast, lunch and “super snacks” for all students are some of the new programs and improvements offered to students in the Lowell School District.
In 2013, after five years of steadily declining enrollment and dwindling school pride, community members in the Lowell area wondered aloud whether the town’s two public schools would be better off closing altogether.
The Lowell School District, which currently has 398 students enrolled within its three schools, was barely functioning.
Lowell High School and Lundy Elementary School were dilapidated buildings with rotting walls, asbestos-filled floors, poor heating and less-than-functional cafeterias. There were at least seven empty classrooms, and what is now a new charter school was being used for storage.
The schools, near the east edge of Dexter Lake, were described as looking more like a dump than an adequate learning environment, according to the district’s Superintendent Walt Hanline, who said he wouldn’t have sent his own children to either of the schools.
But in less than two years, everything changed.
Get on or get out
Hanline, formerly a superintendent in California, was hired in July 2012 as a temporary administrator. He planned to stay for a year at most, but says he’s now committed to the district until at least summer of 2018.
Hanline came in with big ideas.
Not only did the longtime superintendent want to physically renovate the entire district, which was mostly completed over the course of three months in summer 2015, he aimed to change the mindsets of the faculty and staff running the district.
“There was a serious lack of pride,” Hanline said. “The community thought the school, the buildings and the programs were dying.”
So, before beginning his quest for more aesthetically pleasing buildings, Hanline had a difficult discussion with his new staff.
“To have a great district, you have to have a good district,” Hanline said. “I told them I was committed to getting the right people on the bus.
“We have to get the right people in the right seat and get the wrong people off the bus,” he told the staff.
Hanline said he gave the staff a choice.
“I said, ‘If you’re not committed to the change the district is going to make, then get off the bus because we’re going to roll right over you.’ ”
While the “get on or get out” approach was a seemingly harsh one, which consequently prompted at least six staff members to “pursue another avenue,” it seems to have been for the best.
More than half of the district’s teachers are new to the schools within the past two years, with eight new staff members joining the ranks since 2013. The average class size at Lowell and Lundy is 17 students per teacher. At Mountain View, the newly opened charter school, it’s a little less with 15 students per class.
But those low numbers aren’t an accurate reflection of the recent past.
Following the 2008 recession, the district was forced to lay off a number of teachers, according to district officials. Those layoffs resulted in larger class sizes and forced remaining instructors to double up on homeroom classes.
Hanline’s slew of changes fixed that, however, and now each teacher is responsible for one class at a time.
Teaching with purpose
Trudi Gladner, a 21-year veteran of the Lowell School District, said she has never seen such jubilation within the schools.
“Since the new administration, the physical changes to this building have lifted the spirits of the community,” Gladner said. “People walk in and say ‘Wow, I want to bring my kids here.’ Everything has brightened.”
Gladner, who currently teaches fifth-grade reading and math, said that along with the physical building changes, of which there were many, the staff now feels more connected as a result.
“Now it’s like we’re teaching with more purpose, with a common goal, and everyone is excited about it,” Gladner said. “We’re not working in isolation anymore, we’re working together.”
As a product of the Lowell School District herself, Gladner reflected on less happy times.
“For years we were terrified that the town would just disappear,” Gladner said. “The schools are the heart of the community and without them everything would suffer.”
While staff members and administrators are surely doing their part to help maintain positive vibes throughout the community, they aren’t the only ones.
Students of all ages have taken note of the renovations, but some have noticed more than just the physical changes and say the school has grown in more ways than one.
Marisa Owsley, a 17-year-old senior at Lowell High School is the district’s student school board representative.
While Owsley, who has been a student in the district since kindergarten, listed several benefits of the school’s new look, she said the most powerful of changes was the quality of student-teacher interactions and variety of elective classes made available to students.
“We have an actual teacher for Spanish,” Owsley said.
Previously, the students learned all of their Spanish through an online program, according to Principal Kay Graham, who was hired in July 2012.
Mitchell Riberal, 17, another lifelong Lowell student, said one of the biggest shifts he has noticed has been in the attitudes of his peers.
“I think a lot of people feel a lot more comfortable now,” Riberal said. “It’s like a big family.”
Lowell High School science teacher Toni Taylor said the best part about the district is its size.
“I love this small community where I get to know the kids and get to feel like I’m actually making a difference in their lives,” Taylor said.
Taylor described how the new school community differs from the old one.
“The new staff is younger and more willing to push students a little harder,” Taylor said. “There’s a new sense of pride and we interact better as a staff. Everyone looks out for everyone else.”
Financing produces results
So where did the district come up with the money to make these big changes?
The answer is simple: loans.
According to Hanline, the renovations cost about $2.1 million total. About $1.5 million was provided by the Oregon “Cool Schools” Energy Conservation loan, which aims to help schools make valuable, energy-efficient changes now to save money in the future. An additional $600,000 was provided by Government Capital Corp., a public sector financing company that provides long-term, low-interest loans to projects across the nation.
Hanline said an additional $200,000 was taken from the district’s general operating fund to pay for structures such as the new announcer’s booth near the football field.
Hanline said the district looked at demolishing the schools and building new, but found that avenue to be much more expensive; he estimated that it would cost $15 to $20 million to complete.
Although it’s easy to assume that the Lowell School District has benefited from the renovations, new programs and community outreach, the district also has the enrollment numbers to prove it.
In 2013, the district had 239 students enrolled in Lundy Elementary school and Lowell High School. In 2014, the number of students enrolled in those two schools increased by only four, but a freshly renovated Mountain View Charter School attracted 92 new students, making that a total of 335.
Mountain View is connected to Lundy but operates as a separate school, officials said.
Student enrollment between the 2013-14 school year and the 2014-15 school year increased by 4.15 percent. This year, student enrollment is up by 8.62 percent, according to school officials.
In 2015, the district saw a significant increase, with a total of 398 students enrolled in all three schools, of which 110 attend Mountain View.
Hanline plans to resign as superintendent within the next three years, but says his mission won’t end there.
Johnie Matthews, the assistant principal for both Lundy and Lowell, will succeed Hanline when the time comes and says he’s more than excited for the transition.
“It’s my vision, too, you know?” Matthews said. “I’m blessed to be here and be mentored by Walt, and I’m excited to carry on the vision.”
While it’s easy to see that students, staff and faculty are enjoying their new environment, that happiness seems to also be spreading far beyond school walls.
“The community is refreshed,” Taylor said. “People who don’t have kids or grandkids or any sort of affiliation with the school are coming to our events and they’re supportive of the people here — they’re personally invested.”
“Even just looking at how much we’re bringing in at football games says a lot,” Matthews said. “We’re making way more money in concessions and at the gate. It just shows how many more people are joining us.”
So why might someone want to embark on such a challenging adventure?
“I need to have a purpose in my life,” Hanline said. “My work has been my mission, and even though I was retired I still had a sense of trying to impact kids. It was my passion to make a difference with kids. So I had to do it.”
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