June 20, 2024

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Ericka Thessen joins the Eugene 4J school board

7 min read
The new Position 2 member advocated for more engagement by reaching out to ask struggling students and families: What are your barriers? How can we help?

4J’s newest school board member advocated for more engagement, with town halls and site councils, board meetings dedicated to public comment, surveys, and meetings when working parents and grandparents can attend. Here’s our summary of her Sept. 27 interview:

Ericka Thessen: I truly believe in public education. I think it’s a gem, and I think it’s a right for every person, and I think it’s one of the foundational cornerstones of a functioning representative democracy, is having free, excellent public education. And I love Eugene and I believe in the 4J School District, so that’s why I’m here today…

[00:00:36] We need more regional town halls where the board is going around with district leadership and meeting throughout the regions and really reaching out to students and really asking students what they need.

[00:00:49] We realize that the world is changing, you know, so trying to keep up with what the students are needing, everything from elementary to high school age, about increasing PTE or increasing different programs, life skills. So I think having town halls is going to be important, especially regionally.

[00:01:07] We have onsite councils, with parents and community members that live in the network area of the school, and I feel like we need to get back to increasing that, because there’s a lot that you learn from students, I mean, especially at the elementary school level.

[00:01:20] The kids would bring things: ‘Wow, you’re giving us these reading assignments that we can’t keep up.’ So, I think increasing the site council…

[00:01:28] I think asking the students what they need, like an anonymous survey. I remember when my son was a freshman, they did have some type of a survey asking the students how they were doing, how they’re feeling, how things are at school. You know, really reaching out to students and finding out.

[00:01:45] I’d like to see an increase in mental health supports for the students. I think talking about their social and emotional lives, that’s the focus. We are all aware of the increase in depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, the list goes on and on.

[00:02:02] So, could we think outside the box and do things like maybe group therapy? Where professionals in the community can come in and work with kids in a larger group setting, working on stress reduction, working on the things that they’re going through, anxiety, dealing with depression, stress management.

[00:02:21] And again, how do we measure it? I love data. I want data. I also want to understand the human component behind data. So everything that we do…

[00:02:29] We need to have things like surveys. I know it sounds corny, but as a parent, I very infrequently have ever been asked: How do you feel about your student’s school? How do you feel about their quality of their education?

[00:02:42] We need to measure these things by having student-directed surveys, and also parent-directed surveys about how they’re feeling about their education. How they literally feel about going to school every day.

[00:02:52] It’s really about increasing engagement, ultimately…

[00:02:57] So finding out when people are actually available. A majority of people are at work till 5 or 5:30. And then they have to go pick up kids from daycare. So having a meeting at 4:00 or 4:30 does not work for a large swath of the community.

[00:03:10] How do you make it accessible? Food. Provide food. You guys want to get more people engaged? I mean, there were times as a single mom where I was like, ‘Wow, I only have so much food to feed the kids this week. But there’s going to be this thing at the elementary school, and there’s salad, and pizza, and brownies.’ You bet your bottom dollar I was at that, because I could feed my kids, and I could also remain engaged.

[00:03:35] But do things like that. Try to engage more working families. I mean, there are students in our district who are being raised by grandparents who are interested and still having to work jobs. Doing what you can to really find out when the people that we’re not hearing from this much can be engaged.

[00:03:54] I think partnering with community partners is a great way. We have so much already in this community, between the NAACP, Centro (which just merged and changed its organization name), students with disability groups. There’s lots of people we can engage, so making sure as a district we’re reaching out to those people.

[00:04:16] I really do feel like students with disabilities and their families often are the ones that are being most left out. And there’s a lot of students with multiple intersections of lower income, housing insecurity, they may be BIPOC and they’re disabled and it’s like, I just think trying to increase our engagement with the disabled students and their families is important because I think they have a lot of isolation and don’t get engaged and a lot of times they are our most marginalized students and families and they need the most support.

[00:04:49] How I define sort of my thinking on just about everything is borrowed from the disability rights movement: Nothing about them without them.

[00:04:59] Education has been less invested in for 20 to 30 years. I think that the hardest hit in investment has ended up hitting the disabled students.

[00:05:07] I would like to see increasing investment in staffing and resources for the students that are special education, for students that are on IEPs (individualized education programs) and 504s (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973).

[00:05:21] Something that I feel very passionate about is that the time that it takes for a student to get a 504 in this district is much too long. I mean, if a parent and a student comes to a school and says, you know, ‘We’d like an assessment and we feel like we need a 504,’ they have already been struggling soundly for months, if not years.

[00:05:42] So, I mean, you have to understand that the students and their parents are the experts on the student. And they’re saying, ‘Look, my kid is struggling. Please help us.’ So I would like to see the district have shorter times in how long it takes to get a 504 together.

[00:05:58] And the parents may be uninsured, they may be underinsured, but they cannot afford these $3,000 to $4,000 to $5,000 to be assessed by a psychologist or somebody who’s a professional in the area. They can’t do that on their own. They need to come to the district. We do have resources, we do have professionals in the district. And I’d like to see there be less barriers for that and for it to not take as long.

[00:06:23] These are the students who are often struggling the most. Rising tides lift all boats. We help these students, we help all students in the classroom.

[00:06:33] The other thing is that when it comes to students and families with a disability, there’s some competency, every single time. A disabled student has competency. They know what is needed for themselves. Please listen to the students and then please listen to their families.

[00:06:52] There’s a lot of emerging science; brain and neuroscience and education and starting as a district to look at things like, increasing staff education and uses of co-regulation techniques.

[00:07:06] You know, I have two students with autism. When they’re having a meltdown, when they’re having a hard day, I don’t need a staff member who is already overwhelmed and overstimulated, and is going to get overstimulated by my kids’ needs.

[00:07:20] Any educator or staff member that knows about co-regulation, how do you co-regulate with my kids so my kid can get back to the classroom, you can get back to teaching, and everybody can get forward in education.

[00:07:33] John Q: She was asked about equity. 4J’s new board member:

[00:07:37] Ericka Thessen: To eliminate inequities, I think we need to be using restorative and transformative justice practices.

[00:07:43] I’m kind of looking at resources between the regions, like, how is staffing and budgets and resources between Churchill and then South and then Sheldon, you know, how does that level out? And I’d really like to see us do a nice comprehensive assessment, really making sure that there is no inequity between the regions.

[00:08:06] And, how do we measure success? And I think a part of that is, okay, let’s look at attendance. Let’s look at grades. Let’s look at graduation rates: students of color, disabled students, LGBTQ students, students that are low income and possibly are food- or housing-insecure. How are we connecting with these students?

[00:08:29] You know, when we’re looking at, oh, the graduation rate is 86% for the school, but for students of color, it’s this amount, for students with disability, it’s only 65%. Are we going to these students and asking: What are your barriers to attendance? What are your barriers to graduation? Because I think we’re not always focusing on that.

[00:08:51] I know, prior to COVID, Churchill had one of the highest amounts of unhoused or housing-insecure students in the district, and they were really having an extremely hard time with these kids attending, and it’s like, ‘I don’t want to come to school, I can’t wash my clothes. The other students are making fun of me, I wear the same clothes every day, and I don’t smell particularly good.’

[00:09:14] Okay, great. ‘What would happen if we got washers and dryers at Churchill for you guys to be able to discreetly or after school, wash your clothes? What if you were able to get into the school prior to school starting so you could shower? How would that help?’ ‘That would be a huge help.’ Wow. So that was an extremely simple fix.

[00:09:31] So I think really asking students: What are the barriers? Why are you not able to regularly attend school? What’s going on? What are you struggling with, with your grades?

[00:09:40] And then asking students why they’re struggling with graduation. And I think that’s where we need to wrap around students. We need to give them services. And we need to help the ones that are struggling the most.

[00:09:50] John Q: Ericka Thessen joins the 4J school board.

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