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Superintendent finds her stride


Parkrose School District Superintendent Dr. Karen Fischer Gray begins her third year at the district's helm as she guides it through rough waters.
Parkrose School District Superintendent Karen Fischer Gray, who believes sports and extra-curricular activities are a vital and important part of a student's education, celebrates a touchdown during the football team's first playoff appearance since 1982.
For Parkrose School District Superintendent Karen Fischer Gray the 2010-2011 school year is her year - the year things have finally clicked for her.

“It took me three years to kind of fall in love, and I think I'm there,” Gray said.

After 17 years with the Coos County School District, working her way up to superintendent, Gray has now held her post as Parkrose School District superintendent for three years.

Originally drawn to Parkrose by family and the prospect of a new challenge, Gray has come into her own here.

She said that after wearing down her initial “17-year lens” she decided to take on the district with fresh eyes, and those fresh eyes began seeing much work to be done.

“The district was not aligned,” she said. “The elementary schools were like separate little islands. They had different materials and different goals.”

Shaver Elementary, Sacramento Elementary, Prescott Elementary and Russell Academy - the four district elementary schools - have all met the federal and state ratings this year, yet must cope with finding extra attention and educators for struggling students.

The areas of math and reading have been especially difficult for all the schools.

Cindy Bartman, principal of Shaver Elementary said at her school the staff has been working hard to target the English Language Learner students not meeting requirements in areas of reading and math.

Bartman has been at Shaver, observing the ebb and flow of the school for the past eight years.

She said at 392 students, enrollment at Shaver is the highest it has ever been in her tenure. The reality of packed classrooms and limited resources, combined with the socio-economic status of the students, create plenty for the Shaver Elementary staff to handle.

“Forty-five percent of our students are English Language Learners and 90 percent are on free-or-reduced lunch,” Bartman said. “Those two combined create a lot of challenges, but the staff is supportive and we try to allocate resources accordingly.”

Superintendent Fischer Gray's leadership is gladly received Bartman said.

When school started this year, Bartman said Shaver had an extraordinarily large kindergarten class. The result, with only two teachers for the grade, worked out to 38 students in both kindergarten classes.

“Karen said, 'We can't do 38 five-year-olds in a class, that's not going to work,' ” she said.

Bartman said 10 days into the school year, the district found an extra teacher and created a third kindergarten class.

“Karen is always looking for ways to make sure each school is successful,” Bartman said.

Planning for success takes time, which results in Dr. Gray working 12-14 hour days, including Sunday afternoons - long hours that are hers by choice.

Gray's involvement in the community reaches beyond the school district. At the city level, she participates in the Planning and Sustainability Commission and the East Portland Action Plan, and at the county level is involved with the Superintendents Council, Cradle to Career, Local Public Safety Coordinating Council, Schools Uniting Neighbors and the Memorandum of Understanding Leadership.

Statewide, the superintendent is active in the School Improvement Committee, Education Enterprise Steering Committee, Oregon Educator Professional Development Commission and Oregon Association of School Executives. In addition, Gray is also on the Lewis and Clark doctoral program and teaches for the Portland State University Initial Administrator License program.

In October, the Oregonian praised the district's positive state report card results and Parkrose High School for its development with newly installed reading workshops and math labs.

Fischer Gray cites the state report card as a sign the hard work of the past three years has started to show results.

She said the positive press was also a welcome surprise, as she feels the district is often “pummeled” by the Oregonian.

Fischer Gray said one aspect people often misconstrue is the meaning of high school graduation rates.

In the recent past she said Parkrose was on the verge of being one of the districts in the state with the highest graduation rates, but as times and standards changed, a lower amount of students are graduating within the allotted four years of high school.

“We allow, and encourage, kids to graduate in five or six years [rather than not at all],” Gray said. “Our top goal is all kids graduate.”

She said one of the programs she hopes will encourage academic improvement is Cradle to Career.

The program aims to install comprehensive cradle-to-career education and training strategies, as well as increase public, private, non-profit and foundation investments in education.

Those active in creating the program include local educators, presidents of state and community colleges, civic leaders and Portland Mayor Sam Adams.

“The mayor's office has been awesome about asking superintendents what they think - and he actually cares,” she said.

She said implementing Cradle to Career is a five-year process, and at this point leaders have two years of work under their belts.

“The number one goal for me is academic achievement,” Gray said.

Parkrose School District has a 70 percent poverty level, over 50 percent of students are of cultural minorities and 25 percent speak English as a second language. Overall, there are some 50 languages spoken by Parkrose students.

“These are not insurmountable hurdles,” Fischer Gray said. “But it's different than in schools where everyone is white and has money.”

She said she is a proponent of culturally responsive teaching, in which educators “embed and incorporate” the cultural backgrounds of various students rather than just highlighting “heroes and holidays.”

Fischer Gray said the outpouring of community support continually amazes her. “Eighty-five percent of the Parkrose community members don't have kids in the schools,” she said. “They are phenomenally supportive.”

This support manifests itself through community attendance at sporting events, theater productions and fundraising events, she said.

Fischer Gray said for those wanting to get involved there are plenty of opportunities, including volunteering to help with reading, science and math, participating in big brother and big sister programs and weighing in on budget meetings or just plain giving feedback.

She said the district is hoping to pass a $63 million bond next year to modernize the school district and its programs and she would appreciate a positive vote from the community.

Recently, the inaugural Thanksgiving Dinner (“Parkrose Community Thanksgiving dinner becomes reality” December 2010) held at Parkrose Middle School put on by the district was an immense success, Fischer Gray said. With 150 volunteers, including Gray and her grandchildren - students at PMS - 200 people had dinner, with many given extra food to take home; an example of compassion that makes Fischer Gray proud of Parkrose.

There is still much work to do in the district; Fischer Gray has the plans to make it happen and said she will enjoy every second of it while continuously learning.

“If I ever get tired, I get tired, but I'm not tired yet,” she said.
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