Philomath Elementary Principal Bryan Traylor says hi to incoming students on Tuesday. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Across the country this fall, school districts have experienced serious challenges trying to fill teaching vacancies. The reasons vary from educators moving out of the profession for higher-paying jobs to early retirement amid pandemic stress to a long-term decline in people training to become teachers to just plain old burnout with feelings of being overworked and undervalued.

But in the Philomath School District, the situation appears to be stable as educators, staff and students settle into the 2022-23 academic year. In fact, the two schools teaching the youngest students in the city — Clemens Primary and Philomath Elementary — report just one position combined that needs to be filled.

Abby Couture, Clemens Primary School principal, said there was no turnover at all among the staff of eight teachers in the K-1 classrooms. And over at the elementary school, which serves students in grades 2-5, a special services teacher on staff resigned last month to take a job with an education service district.

“We’re in the transition phase right now but Philomath Elementary had zero hires for the school year until this position opened,” Principal Bryan Traylor said Wednesday. “I have never had a year where I’ve had zero hires — both licensed and classified — so we’re very stable. It’s kind of bucking the trend, I guess.”

Overall throughout the district, Philomath welcomes 15 new teachers onto the various campuses with 11 of those coming at the high school and middle school combined.

Philomath High School had changes at the top with Mark Henderson hired to take over as the principal. Henderson’s hire occurred in April, his contract year began July 1 and he arrived on campus Aug. 1.

Henderson, who comes to Philomath from Crescent Valley where he served as assistant principal, takes over for Brent Belveal, who came in to serve as interim principal last December after former principal Mike Bussard was reassigned.

A crossing guard helps a family cross 16th Street. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

PHS also has two assistant principals again as part of the admin team. Dee Dee Collins comes to the high school from Sweet Home to join Tony Matta in that capacity.

In the classroom, new teachers at PHS include Beth Aschenbrenner (Spanish), Keri Bennett (family and consumer science), Lance Faxon (health/physical education), Jessica Mattson (science), April McKinney (special programs) and Amber Vaughn (math). Aschenbrenner is not new to the building with her substituting last school year for the previous instructor who took a leave of absence along with work at Philomath Academy.

At the middle school, Steve Bell begins his 15th year as the principal and 21st year in Philomath — those first six as assistant principal. Bell’s administrative staff has undergone some change with Chad Matthews and Jamon Ellingson now sharing assistant principal duties. They are also both sharing the student success coach position.

The middle school has seen its share of changes among its teaching staff. New teachers include Derek Bright (social studies), Sally Mills (science), Daniel Mock (social studies), Philip Peterson (math) and Sarah Peterson (science).

Kings Valley Charter School opted to handle its administrative duties from a team approach instead of hiring a single executive director.

“It’s actually a really progressive thought process where it allows multiple people to function independently but collaboratively,” said Diana Barnhart, who handles interfacing with other entities in the area of operations. “I’m really proud to be a part of this team for the last year … it allows me to do my strengths and allows my teammates to do their strengths. I’ve found it to be a really effective progress.”

Along with Barnhart, other admin team members include Mark Hazelton (business manager), Kari-Anne Gonzalez (dean of students) and Athena Lodge (educational director).

“We didn’t necessarily have a lot of turnover but the largest employment hurdle for us was finding staff to fulfill our needs,” Barnhart said about hiring teachers. “We actually weren’t able to fill all of our educational needs last year. … We were actually down an elementary teacher all of last year and we were able to fill that this year. That was the greatest challenge … to gain staff to fill those holes, which is still a challenge.”

Barnhart believes some potential candidates turn away from applying to Kings Valley because of the location, which translates into commuting with high gas prices, along with high competition for jobs with the school unable to match some of the higher salaries seen elsewhere — in or out of education.

As for those teachers, KVCS welcomes three new ones — Sarah Nieminski (grades 2-3), Inga Russell (middle 5 health/physical education) and Hailey Smith (grades 3-4).

Philomath Academy has one new hire among the teacher ranks with Justin Barron to teach English, Principal Dan Johnson reported. No administrative staff changes were seen at Clemens Primary — where it’s only Couture — or Philomath Elementary-Blodgett School, where Traylor is assisted by Mike McDonough.

All of the schools reported changes with various other positions, such as instructional assistants.

Philomath High School
Philomath High School (Photo by Logan Hannigan-Downs_

Philomath High School

The high school introduced freshmen to campus on Tuesday with everybody else joining them on Wednesday.

“It’s always exciting to have the kids back in the building but for me specifically — still being new to the building and this small community — I’m getting the chance to start meeting kids,” Henderson said.

Henderson didn’t have up-to-date enrollment numbers on hand but it appears that a large freshman class is replacing last year’s small senior class. As of two weeks ago, the freshman class numbered 132, Henderson said, “so I think we’re definitely up in enrollment.”

In the area of instruction, the high school is introducing changes to the homeroom period, which meets on Mondays.

“From what I understand, in the past it wasn’t all that effective,” Henderson said about utilizing homeroom time. “So we’ve developed a curriculum for that and it’s tied to the Oregon Essential Skills … the kids are going to be satisfying essential skills every year as they move through high school.”

The state established nine essential skills with three of those required to graduate — “read and comprehend a variety of text; write clearly and accurately; and apply mathematics in a variety of settings.”

Henderson said the school is also now scheduling teachers to be available for advisory time on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays right before lunch.

“It’s a chance for kids to go seek extra help from the teacher that they may have had earlier in the day or will have later in the day, go make up a test, things like that,” Henderson said, adding that student incentives are also being introduced.

Philomath Academy

Johnson, who is in his third year as principal, said several students indicated that they were ready to get started with their classes.

“We’ve got students that are trying to just figure out they want to interface with school and we’re here to figure out how to make sure that they’re staying active and engaged and they can get what they need,” Johnson said.

Although Philomath Academy works off the district calendar in terms of instructional days, the school does have a little more flexibility with scheduling — which is not always a good thing.

“We are really making a concerted effort this year to keep everybody on track or ahead in all of our classes,” Johnson said. “We’re not the traditional classroom where you have Period 1 going from this time to that time — you can flex that time in and we’ve got open classroom hours where they’re coming in and meeting staff members and doing what they need to do.”

Johnson said Tuesday that enrollment at the academy was sitting in the mid-60s. Of those, 16 are enrolled in K-8 with high school-aged students making up the rest.

For the curriculum, the school is using Pearson VUE, which is new to the staff this year.

Philomath Academy had hoped to move into the current district office to use as its new instructional home but various factors delayed the project. As a result, the alternative school continues to operate out of the high school library.

“As soon as it’s ready, I’m buying moving trucks,” Johnson laughed.

Philomath Middle School
Philomath Middle School (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath Middle School

The middle school started Tuesday with sixth graders and then on Wednesday, the seventh and eighth graders joined them. Bell has hopes of re-establishing a productive environment that he said had been present on campus before the pandemic.

“We’re really trying to establish who we are school culture wise,” Bell said. “And you know, just that positive atmosphere of good energy and being available for kids and for families. This year, we hope to really establish where we were a couple years ago.”

Bell’s referring to the school not able to offer its full range of extracurricular activities over the past two years.

“Our numbers are up to about 341 currently and so we’re getting close to where we were a couple years ago and that’s good,” Bell said. “I have new staff this year and so really bringing them on board to all that Philomath Middle School represents — being kind and being brave. It’s a good feeling right now.”

The middle school does have a major change with curriculum.

“We have a new language arts curriculum and so our language arts teachers are excited about working with that and we continue to learn some of those materials …” Bell said.

Philomath Elementary School
Philomath Elementary School (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath Elementary-Blodgett School

Traylor is entering his third year as principal at Philomath Elementary and Blodgett School, 32nd year as a principal and 44th year in education.

“There’s nothing like the first day with the kids — it’s energizing, exhausting and exhilarating,” Traylor said. “I think stability is the word for us here at Philomath Elementary and it’s a really nice place to be. The kids walked in the door today, familiar faces, familiar systems. So we’re not reworking the ship as it’s sailing — it’s floating on the ocean pretty well.”

Blodgett School (Photo by Philomath School District)

As far as enrollment, it’s on par with last year’s numbers, which ended at 343.

“We’re just a nudge up from last year,” Traylor said. “I think the last I heard we were in the 340s, close to 350,” Traylor said. “At Blodgett, enrollment is at 28, so they’re up about five kids from last year.”

Traylor said one of the oddities seen with enrollment is a very small third grade — “It’s about 20 students smaller than all of the other grades.”

As mentioned, the school is currently looking to hire a special services teacher.

“We’re looking at some scenarios to fill it,” Traylor said. “Special education is a very difficult licensure to fill … there’s just not that many applicants out there. So we may be filling it with a temporary person and do some internal training to support her. That’s kind of the path we’re on right now.”

Clemens Primary School
Clemens Primary School (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Clemens Primary School

Couture, who is in her sixth year as the CPS principal, said the first days of school are always exciting.

“The parents get to talk their kids down to the classroom so they can see it and then after that, the parents just drop them off at the front door,” Couture said. “All of the kids are doing really well.”

The primary school started half of the kindergarteners and first graders on Tuesday and brought in the other half on Wednesday. Couture reported enrollment of 89 kindergarten students and 85 first graders — numbers that are higher than in recent years.

“We adopted a new reading curriculum this school year — it’s called Into Reading,” Couture said. “So the teachers are all learning how to implement that for this school year.”

As far as the facilities, Clemens Primary School saw work done on the building over the summer with roof replacement over the cafeteria and gymnasium. A community garden is now part of the campus with its establishment last spring.

KVCS sign
Kings Valley Charter School (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News

Kings Valley Charter School

The rural school located about 12 miles west and north of Philomath opened its academic year this week as well and is seeing higher enrollment numbers compared to last year.

“We finished the year last year with 199 and we’re starting at 214, so we’ve picked up quite a few students,” Barnhart said. “Our enrollment cap is 216, so we’re almost at max capacity this year.”

Barnhart, who in addition to serving with the administrative team is also the career technical education coordinator, culinary teacher and kitchen manager, said the school has made some changes related to providing more teacher support and access for students, particularly in the high school grades for math and science.

“That’s something that we really are finding that our students just need — that extra time and that extra support to be successful,” Barnhart said.

In the area of facilities, KVCS is seeing progress with its advancements in the CTE program. The construction of a pole barn for natural resources programs that had been on hold will break ground next week. Barnhart hopes it will be completed and in use by the next semester. The school is also building a pavilion to enhance outdoor learning within its gardening program.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.