In the typical Oregon public school classroom, students of the same age work at achievement levels that often vary by two or three grades, sometimes more.
That didn’t make sense to Mary Folberg. When she launched Northwest Academy, a private college preparatory school for grades 6-12 in downtown Portland, she grouped students the way she did as a dance instructor at Jefferson High, by proficiency rather than age.
That’s the seismic shift Gov. John Kitzhaber wants to make in the state’s public school system through a package of education bills passed by the Legislature last month.
At the heart of the package is one bill pushed by Kitzhaber to create paths from pre-school through college on which students advance at their own paces. The bill creates a 15-member Oregon Education Investment Board, chaired by the governor, to control the purse strings on all levels of education from preschool through college — about $7.4 billion or half of the state general fund.
Kitzhaber envisions the board using financial incentives to shift the focus of public education from what he calls “seat time” to learning. The board might, for example, financially reward districts for each student, whether 15 or 18, who meets high school exit standards
This shift would make public schools more like Northwest Academy, where students advance based on what they know and can do rather than on how much time they spend in school.
Maya Caulfield, 11, for example, skipped fifth grade when she enrolled at the school after Folberg determined she was ready for sixth-grade work. Maya soon revealed so much talent in improvisation, she was placed in theater classes with high school students.
Academy students who top out in the school’s math curriculum go to Portland State University for more advanced classes. Some students take three years to get through high school; others take five. But all 28 graduates in the last two years were ready for college and went, said Folberg.