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School Board to Consider Ridgeline Montessori Charter School Contract Renewal

Elizabeth Gabriel

Ridgeline Montessori Public Charter School in Eugene is seeking renewal of its charter from the 4J school board. At Wednesday’s school board meeting, the district report found the school is in good standing, but needs some improvements.

Currently in its 20th year, Ridgeline has been an important resource for students who learn differently.

Montessori schools are based on an education method of self-direction and hands-on learning. Ridgeline currently provides instruction for grades kindergarten through eighth and has an enrollment cap of 253 students.

During the meeting, Ridgeline parents, teachers, and former students spoke in support of the contract renewal.

Luke Lodwig is a 16-year-old student at Baker Web Academy. An alum of Ridgeline, he said the charter school changed his life.

“There is no one system that can perfectly encompass everybody's needs,” said Lodwig. “Those that lie on the ends of the spectrum, whether they are too enthusiastic or not enthusiastic enough, are discouraged and left out. I know about that because I was one of those students.”

He said Ridgeline forced him to grow intellectually and socially, learning to take constructive criticism from others. 

“They met me at every level with everything I threw at them—and threw it right back—and we kept going,” said Lodwig.

He said Ridgeline changed the way he views education and the world.

“Without Ridgeline there, I wouldn't have had that skill [to evaluate other people the same way I evaluated myself],” said Lodwig. “I wouldn't be able to evaluate myself fairly or other people fairly. And I wouldn't let myself be wrong. Every time I was wrong, it would still be the end of the world. And that is not an effective citizen in the world. Ridgeline really does create better people.”

Pete Goldlust and his wife Melanie have two sons who went to Ridgeline for several years. In 2016, the family moved from the Southwest to Eugene, largely for an opening at Ridgeline, because their previous school system didn't have the resources for their sons to succeed.

“Our oldest son had always been an extraordinarily anxious kid and our local public school was not equipped to help him,” said Goldlust. “He had gotten to the point where he was pulling out his hair, alienating his longtime friends, and lashing out at our family on a constant basis. He had recently been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and it had become clear that he needed a different approach.”

Once attending Ridgeline, Goldlust said staff and teachers integrated minor accommodations into his routine that made dramatic improvements in his state of mind and ability to function.

“We cannot overstate the positive impact on our son of attending Ridgeline,” said Goldlust. “The flexibility inherent in the Montessori structure gave our son the space he needed to calm down, to be more comfortable in his own skin, and to thrive academically and socially.”

The school board previously approved five year contracts in 2005 and 2010. Then in 2011, the board approved a full extent extension of the Ridgeline contract for 10 years, with the contract expiring on June 30, 2020.

During the school board meeting, the district presented its evaluation of the school based on a review of the public charter school's annual performance reports, audit of accounts, site visits and summaries of student performance, updates on program modifications, evaluations of financial stability, and previous annual year reports and recommendations.

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Charis McGaughy said the renewal request does not propose any significant changes to the school's program.

She said Ridgeline students consistently outperform the district averages and proficiency rates on the Oregon Summative Assessment System, and have high scores in English language arts. But, the school could be more diverse.

“Currently, the district has approximately 68% white students and Ridgeline has 80%,” said McGaughy. “So that's just an example. So [we need to] help work on a plan further [to know] how the district could assist and further diversifying the school to be representative of our community.”

The evaluation team made two improvement recommendations that could be considered in the contract’s performance goals. One, coming up with a goal to help further diversify the student population to more closely reflect the district’s demographics. Two, continue closing achievement gaps for historically underserved students. McGaughy, the group experiencing the biggest gap are students with disabilities.

According to the report, students with disabilities at Ridgeline had a 33.3% proficiency rate in English in the 2016-2017 school year, while the district elementary average was 53.3% and the middle school average was 56.4%. For math, Ridgeline had an average of 16.7% for students with disabilities, while the district elementary average was 44.4% and the middle school average was 46.3%.

But the performance of students with disabilities shows a positive upward trend. During the 2018-2019 school year, Ridgeline students with disabilities had a proficiency rate of 50% in English, while the district elementary average was 55.7% and the middle school average was 55.4%. In math, Ridgeline students with disabilities had a proficiency rate of 30%, while the district elementary average was 46.8% and the middle school average was 43.5%.

School board member Alicia Hays plans to support the renewal, but she said she was concerned by a lack of a nutrition program, which can be a barrier for underrepresented and economically disadvantaged students who want to attend. McGaughy responded by stating that the school seemed receptive to meeting with nutrition services in order to explore a partnership to provide school meals.

McGaughy said the superintendent is recommending approving a 10 year contract renewal of Ridgeline contingent upon a successful negotiation. School board members must approve or deny the renewal within 30 days of the public hearing.

Elizabeth Gabriel is a former KLCC Public Radio Foundation Journalism Fellow. She is an education reporter at WFYI in Indianapolis.
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