Written by guest contributor Adriane Blackman.
On any given day in a preschool classroom at Yoncalla Elementary School, the atmosphere is abuzz with light and warmth. Kids and teachers are immersed in activity. Some children play in the kitchen “cooking” a meal for their friends, some build with blocks, while others nestle side by side poring over the pages of picture books. Play is a core activity, creating opportunities to grow and learn. And for preschoolers in Yoncalla, very possibly their most important work.
Though preschool programming has existed in Yoncalla for several decades, the programming offered was limited, and wasn’t free. Over the past decade, preschool classrooms have expanded and evolved and now serve every 3 and 4-year-old in the district. It has become an essential opportunity for children in the community, stemming from the launch of Yoncalla Early Works in 2013.
More than ten years ago, Children’s Institute (CI) and The Ford Family Foundation (TFFF) recognized the importance of responding to the needs of remote rural communities in Oregon. They took time to understand the complexity and unique conditions present in Yoncalla, and then invested in an approach to engage with parents, families, educators, and local leaders to transform education and the role of the school in the community. That decision launched Yoncalla Early Works, a long-term initiative built on a partnership with the Yoncalla School District.
Yoncalla is located close to Interstate 5 in Douglas County, halfway between Eugene and Roseburg with approximately 1,100 residents. With a history as a timber town, Yoncalla was steeped in the traditions of logging. For decades, life in the woods grounded the community in a strong work ethic and connection to the land. Pride of place and the resources found there, didn’t only fuel the economy, but a whole way of life. Massive shifts in the industry in the late 20th century led to significant changes in the community, including declining wages, job losses, and a dwindling population that led to reduced local tax revenue for schools.
The shifting timber industry left the community with a cascade of challenges and for many, a feeling that their very way of life was being dishonored. Families were at the mercy of a broken system, leaving many to feel disempowered and disenfranchised by those in power.
When Early Works launched in Yoncalla, the story of a community steeped in poverty prevailed. But the true story of transformation in Yoncalla is built on community resilience. A group of engaged and committed parents, families, and educators with a commitment to excellence in education, and early learning as a driver for helping transform an entire district.
Building Trust and Safety
Megan Barber began teaching preschool at Yoncalla Elementary in 2015, returning to the community she grew up in after many years away and earning her masters degree. Today, she teaches alongside peers who are also from the community, working with two full preschool classrooms. Barber is keenly aware of the needs of her students, observing, responding, and guiding each of her students throughout any given day.
The forests surrounding Yoncalla are a constant reminder of their past and the traditions that have imbued this community with strength and grit, and a deep sense of Oregon. The trees continue to inspire and inform, even in something as simple as a preschool art project. Picture Barber seated at a small table next to one of her students, helping him with his work. She narrates his actions as he carefully glues green triangles onto his paper, eventually revealing a tree. He focuses intently as his small fingers select glitter squares to adorn the branches. Barber instructs, calmly and with care, giving him the opportunity to create his own work, in his own unique way. As he places his completed tree on the drying rack, she seamlessly transitions the class to whole group rug time, singing songs as she guides them to their appropriate rug squares.
In this environment, students practice self control, sitting with their legs crossed and managing their personal space. They practice leadership and select peers to share their ideas with the group. They also discuss different versions of a story, tallying observations onto a large graph displayed by the class calendar, an exercise that helps develop pre-literacy and math skills. As the lesson concludes, Barber checks in with a student who seemed to have difficulty staying engaged.
“I notice you seem tired today,” she says. “Would you like to sit with me for a few minutes?” Her invitation is met with a quiet relief, as he quickly hops into her lap. Together, they look through her song book, singing the melody, as his small body relaxes and grows calm.
“Every day is getting him to trust that I’m going to keep him safe,” she said. “He is always testing the limits of safe boundaries.“
This is responsive teaching, meeting kids where they’re at, knowing when the lesson plan needs to adjust. But Barber uses these tools not just because they feel good, but because they are grounded in research and best practice.
The concept of responsive teaching is based on the philosophy of Conscious Discipline and trauma sensitive practices. Conscious Discipline teaches children to self-regulate, identify their emotions, and solve problems. This whole-child approach encourages teachers to hold space for and honor the myriad of experiences that children bring with them to school, including trauma that has impacted their families and community. Teachers have completed hours of professional development on trauma, how it impacts behavior in children, and what it means for learning and engagement.
Responsive teaching includes applying an asset-based lens to working with students, identifying strengths they bring, strengths within their families, connecting, creating trust, and building relationships. Educators in Yoncalla recognize that it is imperative for them to build meaningful relationships with their students and their families.
In the extensive training that the Yoncalla teachers and staff have received in Conscious Discipline, they have learned that the most important part of this journey starts first with their own healing. Barber, and her teaching colleague, Jill Wells, speak openly about bringing awareness to their own school experiences, their personal assets and challenges, and the ways they have learned to self-regulate, all of which enables them to show up consistently and calmly for their students everyday.
When Barber and Wells first meet families during their summer home visits, they explain that they are going on a journey together, and that their intention is to build trust between school and home. They reinforce the idea that parents play the most important role in their child’s life. They are welcomed in school and encouraged to participate in their child’s education. These relationships have been transformational and speak to the willingness of parents to be vulnerable and continue to forgive a school system that in many instances, failed them.
Barber and Wells have created spaces that embody healing, safety, and acceptance. “We often don’t remember the details of preschool, but we remember how we felt,” Barber said. The classroom is structured to include academic learning, nutrition, movement, rest time, conflict resolution, and a multitude of invested adults. Children are guided to express themselves in safe ways to find resolution. Barber works tirelessly to create a classroom environment to help them do that. “Instead of expecting the kids to fit a certain mold, we see how we can alter the environment to fit them.”
In the past, students experiencing behavioral challenges might have been ignored, considered “bad,” or handled with punitive discipline. Today, when students display challenging behavior, Barber and Wells see beyond the behavior and instead hear their small voices asking for help: “I am struggling. I don’t feel safe. Am I worth your time?”
“This is how we’re going to love them,” Wells said. “We’re going to show up, wait, give them skills and help them re-focus.”
Wells and Barber use picture books to teach early literacy skills, empathy, and acceptance. Books like Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap by Clay and Gail Morton help teach that there are many ways to be human in the world and that there is room for everyone’s experience. The conversations these stories elicit are a critical part of creating a classroom climate of safety and resilience.
Reminders of this holistic and accepting philosophy are built into the learning experience for every preschool student. On the walls, in the hallways, embedded within the activity centers in each classroom are visual cues to re-center, repair when mistakes are made, and start again. A kindness tree hangs on the wall of Barber’s room, with branches full of leaves written with a multitude of acts of kindness witnessed throughout the year. Barber tells her students that the kindness tree grows when we do nice things for each other: “You grow what you value, and we value kindness.”
In the hallway dividing the two preschool classrooms, a conflict resolution ladder hangs in the wall at the ready. When two students find themselves in conflict, they are guided to pull down the ladder, lay it on the ground, and walk step by step from opposite ends of the ladder. As they get closer to each other, they express their feelings until they meet at the center and arrive at a common understanding. Teachers consistently respond in ways that help address needs as they arise, regrounding students so they can come back to a place where they can learn and thrive.
Every moment of the day in preschool is a learning opportunity. The social emotional lessons are intertwined with academic skills in pre-literacy and math. Lunchtime typically includes lessons in healthy nutrition, life skills, self-control, and language development. What’s notable about responsive teaching in Yoncalla is that what the 3 and 4-year-olds learn stays with them through elementary school. K-5 teachers see improved attendance, student behavior, parent engagement, test scores, overall school climate, and fewer discipline referrals.
Leadership and Collaboration
When Early Works launched in Yoncalla in 2013, CI, TFFF, and the team at the Yoncalla School District recognized the need to have someone embedded in the community to lead the work. CI and Ford Family staff worked with the community to complete a community needs and resources assessment, eventually hiring a site liaison in 2014 to begin the work on the ground. This initial phase was instrumental in building foundational relationships and in 2015, Erin Helgren was hired to take over this work. This position was largely built from lessons learned and shared by having a family engagement coordinator at the Earl Boyles Early Works site in Portland. As site liaison, Erin’s work focused on engaging with the community, exploring its needs and desires, connecting with partners, and beginning the work of building a preschool program.
I was charged with walking alongside the community and ensuring diverse stakeholders had the opportunity to be heard and responded to, and to look for opportunities for forward movement,” Helgren said. “The work required someone in the community, as it was difficult to move the work forward without someone understanding the nuances and complexities unique to a rural community.”
With a background in social work, early childhood, and community building, Helgren brought a fresh perspective to Yoncalla, one that helped reimagine what early learning could look like for the district.
“My position allowed the district to mindfully create a program that was grounded simultaneously in both best practices and family voice,” Helgren said.
Early on in the initiative, it wasn’t uncommon for Helgren to encounter resistance. Some parents and educators didn’t see a need or have the desire to change. Many in the community did not support preschool implementation, preferring to focus on things like family fun nights, access to sports, and community baby showers. It wasn’t uncommon to hear, “This is how we’ve always done it.”
Brian Berry, the Yoncalla superintendent since 2017, has been working in public education since 1986. When Helgren arrived, Berry was serving as the principal of Yoncalla High School. They didn’t always see eye to eye. Their strong relationship today took time to evolve as they initially challenged each other to think from different perspectives. Their different roles allowed them to stretch each other to find the best solutions to complex problems. Berry initially viewed her as an outsider, as someone who did not understand the community and was not steeped in public education. But over time, they grew to collaborate as leaders,
“Working with Erin has been a privilege,” Berry said. “Because I’ve been in public education for so long, I tend to have an inside the box mentality. Erin comes to education from a totally different outside of the box perspective. I believe because of this, we work well together and keep each other on our toes when blending public education into the Early Works model.”
Both kept children at the center of decision making. Both upheld a vision for creating a school community grounded in the belief that every child can succeed, every family deserves respect, teachers are regarded for their professional expertise, and that every person in the community matters and is needed in order for everyone to achieve the greatest success.
Today, that community includes a network of parents, families, teachers, and local leaders who are deeply invested in Yoncalla’s children, early learning, public health, families, and community resilience.
Between 2013 and 2015, the expansion of preschool involved many conversations with parents and families. “It was driven by guidelines outlining the required service hours needed for stronger social-emotional and academic skills related to later school success,” Helgren said.
But the work was not without its challenges. Helgren had hard conversations and sometimes had to make decisions that didn’t make her popular. But she also found allies in the community and in the school who were committed to the mission, and those were the people who helped bring this vision of early childhood to life.
From Berry’s perspective, one of the greatest challenges was stepping away from the traditional approach to education. “We built a model that actually serves and listens to the community,” he said. “Education programs do not teach you how to actually listen to the community that you work for.”
The preschool also had to be fully integrated into the operations of the elementary school. “We had to make sure we had communication between the preschool and the elementary school teachers. Preschool and elementary teachers are now on the same pay scale. Preschool teachers are part of our building and district meetings and the preschool director is part of our monthly administration meetings. We also have a student of the month award for the preschool!”
This type of model is significant to note as it’s not the norm for other districts implementing preschool. CI and TFFF work with districts that, despite getting Preschool Promise dollars, are not close to achieving pay equity. Preschool teachers are not embedded into the schools and are rarely included as directors or in administrative school district decision-making. It is not uncommon even for principals to have a cloudy idea of their role in preschool implementation. This unique collaboration between the preschool and the district, has been a powerful tool in the initiative’s transformation and one which will facilitate sustainable continued growth for years to come.
Berry and Helgren haven’t been afraid to push each other to find the best solution for tough problems. One day they might be brainstorming ways to get buses for kids to access after school activities across town. Another day they are making plans for the next community event that will draw hundreds of people from the area.
Today, Helgren’s role has evolved from site liaison to principal at the elementary school. For Berry, he sees a tremendous change in the district since early learning became a Yoncalla staple.
“Students come into kindergarten with better school readiness skills. Teachers are more prepared to meet the diverse needs of the community and their families. That was not happening before,” Berry said. “And I want to make sure that what we’re doing in the elementary grades stays with kids all the way through middle and high school.
Expanding Health Care Access
Helgren, alongside parents, educators and community leaders, wanted to address unmet health care needs in their region of North Douglas County. Health was a core pillar of Early Works from the outset, recognizing that wrap-around services for families are vital to creating a healthy community and successful schools.
This programming took time to be fully implemented, as trust building between the preschool and parent education took time to establish. CI and TFFF first conducted a Community Health Assessment that was community and parent-led. “The CHNA was a catalyst for amplifying the need for health care and behavioral health services in the region,” Helgren reflects. Her team visited AVIVA leaders nearly a year prior to the health center opening to share their data. What was unique was the focus of the CHNA, specific to the region, versus a broad sweep that did not match the county wide health assessments. It was clear the needs of the rural community were not being adequately met.
In order to address this disparity, the Umpqua Community Health Center, now Aviva Health, opened a clinic in 2019, in the small neighboring town of Drain, just 10 minutes from Yoncalla Elementary. The goal was to expand access to essential health care services, including preventive care, immunizations, vision and dental screenings.
Today, Dr. Kanani Dilcher, a family medicine physician with an extensive background in community health, manages the clinic and provides care. She has also worked closely with the Yoncalla School District to secure grant funding for afterschool programming focused on health access. These after school movement activities create safe opportunities for kids to get exercise and receive a healthy meal under the careful watch of invested adults. She has helped students get urgent dental care and the required transportation. And she believes so strongly in the vision in Yoncalla that she transferred her children to the district for preschool and elementary school.
Pivot Point: Engaged Families
Key partners for Yoncalla Early Works have been the parents and families from the Yoncalla community. The relationship between the school and families has strengthened over the years, but it took a steady effort to build trust and communication.
In the past, it wasn’t common for parents to be invited into the school buildings, much less participate in school activities and decision making. Many parents had negative memories of school and felt disempowered to get involved and connect with the learning experience for their children.
When Helgren began working in the Yoncalla community, she saw barriers to family engagement that were negatively impacting school climate and student achievement. “Children are always ready to learn but sometimes teachers aren’t prepared to teach in ways that feel safe,” Helgren said. “The relationship between successful students and effective teachers often depends on building trusting relationships with families.”
Helgren has helped coordinate numerous parent engagement opportunities over the years. Today it isn’t uncommon to see parents at the school helping in classrooms, assisting at lunch or on the playground, or getting involved in after school activities.
“Buy-in from parents has grown substantially,” Berry said. “Parents are beginning to volunteer and not see the district as an obstacle to be avoided. We are seeing the students who were part of the preschool program get involved in our youth sports programs. Their parents are joining the booster club and the local Yoncalla Engaged Parents group.” Increasingly, families feel welcomed and honored. Parents and teachers often work together to create an ecosystem of care for their children, and parent involvement permeates the entire school experience.
Madison Kokos, a Yoncalla parent, grew up in Yoncalla and can see that things have changed significantly since she was a student at the elementary school. Her two children are now elementary students and attended preschool. Her youngest will enter preschool in the fall of 2023.
“My experience wasn’t terrible, but also not great,” Kokos said. When she became a young mother, she wondered if things would be the same for her children. Her oldest son had a successful preschool experience with Yoncalla Early Works. He was thriving and loved school. In kindergarten, however, he received numerous discipline referrals and had low academic performance. The message seemed to be that there was something wrong with her child. “Nearly every day there was a line of kindergarten students waiting to meet with the principal, sent by their teacher. Kids were always in trouble, especially boys,” she said. Discipline referrals were being made at an alarming level, making both kids and parents feel that school was not a place where they belonged or could find success.
Kokos, who remembers when Early Works started, said the focus was on getting kids ready for kindergarten. “After going to kindergarten, we realized kindergarten wasn’t responsive to kids,” she said. “My son had a sensory issue that he was not able to get help with which impacted his behavior. His teacher was not responsive to his needs. Students were typically asked to sit for far too long and focus on activities that were not developmentally appropriate. Expectations for behavior were unrealistic.”
Helgren and Berry responded to Kokos’s concerns, along with other parents, and could see that the teaching philosophies used by preschool and elementary teachers were very different. They began the process of integrating the teaching practices from preschool into elementary grades. They worked with teachers, offered training, and helped the school community as a whole, recognize student strengths and respond to student needs.
This transformation took time and finesse. Getting into the school and shifting practice was hard. On the surface, things looked good. School staff attended community events, participated in statewide and even some national training and seemed to be saying all the right things. Teachers were being taught about conscious discipline and how to shift their practice, but in reality were often using punitive approaches. It took time for leadership to recognize the practices and values were so misaligned until Kokos and several other parents sounded the alarm. This pivot point in the program’s history is important to recognize, as it came to impact how CI and TFFF thought about ESS and the importance of starting with classroom practices, as opposed to starting a preschool program and family engagement strategies from the outset.
Helgren and Berry worked hard to shrink this gulf. Eventually, the practices used in preschool settings were brought to higher grade levels and, over time, the learning experience for kids began to evolve. By the time Kokos’ second child reached kindergarten, the difference was stark.
“My second child’s transition to kindergarten was really smooth,” she said. “When her speech issues were identified early on in preschool, those interventions followed her to kindergarten where her teachers were responsive and open.”
This kind of evolution of the teaching and learning environment has reduced the presence of shame and blame and brought more joy to the school. “There was also this idea that if kids were having fun, they weren’t learning, that anything enjoyable couldn’t also be educational,” Kokos said. “That has shifted. Teachers have created an environment where kids have fun and learn and, I believe, learn more efficiently and effectively. When kids are enjoying school, they have fewer behavior problems.”
“The biggest sign for me as to how things were changing, was when the pandemic hit. My sons were so sad that school was closed,” Kokos said. “Before, my oldest son never wanted to go to school. But during the shutdown, he kept asking me why he couldn’t go. He even went as far as to say, ‘Why are you punishing me?’”
Kokos remembers the early days of Early Works, recalling that many people in the community did not yet see a need for a new preschool. The small private program that was in place at the time was good enough for those who could afford it, but its limited programming left many children and families without access to adequate high quality early childhood education.
The Early Works team launched summer play groups and created opportunities for parents to engage with the school. Over time, community conversations and activities helped open the door to the idea of expanding early learning opportunities, including preschool, early intervention, home visits, and more.
“A pivot point was asking families to engage in conversations that explored resistance to preschool programming and then create a governance committee to help guide school administration in co-creating a program,” Helgren said. “We needed to listen to the community and respond to its needs and values. Many people were engaged in that work of problem solving, planning, and collaboration.”
Today, teachers offer home visits before the fall school year begins to build relationships and get to know incoming children. The school offers parent education courses, cooking classes, classroom volunteer opportunities, and after school and summer programs. Some parents have become so inspired by what they see inside classrooms that they have become cooks, janitors, bus drivers, teachers aids, and office staff, among other roles. Family participation has resulted in a transformed school community, one that centers children. This has resulted in increased enrollment, student transfers from neighboring schools, improved attendance, growing achievement and decreased drop out rates.
Yoncalla Engaged People
The broader community supports Yoncalla’s children and families in a variety of ways. The Yoncalla Engaged People group, formerly called Yoncalla Engaged Parents, has grown steadily over the past decade and now has approximately 40 members. The group aims to be inclusive and engage a diverse group of community members while helping elevate parent voice in the school system and empower families to get involved. Additionally, the booster club, which has historically been focused on supporting sports, has expanded its focus to meet other community needs. Today, the club is responsible for a coat closet for the preschool and elementary school, and they are developing a food pantry to help offset food insecurity for families. When there is a need, the community has learned to rally and work with school leaders to find solutions.
What is best for kids?
In 2018, when teachers began the work of adopting Conscious Discipline, their focus was on using a trauma-informed approach designed to transform teaching and learning with a focus on social-emotional learning. They have spent a significant amount of time learning to create a culture of compassion and how internal emotional states affect behavior, for students and adults.
These approaches have taken time to become fully integrated. Helgren reflects, “It was a hard shift and has only been somewhat actualized over the last two years or so.” These practices were a vital tool in programming and the commitment to using them has been integral to its success. When parents came to Helgren and Berry with their worries, they responded by bringing this training to the upper grades, and the growth continues today following kids up through middle school with the goal of reaching high school too.
“Conscious Discipline means adults have to be willing to dig in and do the hard work,” Helgren said. “It’s about increasing self-awareness and helping the adults in the building understand that they need to learn to co-regulate with kids. All adults in the school have access to this training, teachers, parents, instructional assistants, custodial staff, bus drivers, everybody.”
Helgren said she relies on reflective supervision to help her peers take the opportunity to learn. “I have to create space for adults to express themselves, which means sometimes I feel more like a social worker or therapist.”
Berry said, “Sometimes, that’s the job.”
In the classrooms, teachers have found that disruptions to the school day have been minimized and there are fewer discipline referrals. Adults embrace a culture of empowerment, acceptance, growth, and learning. When kids experience emotional dysregulation, they are given tools, starting in their very first moments as preschoolers, to cope with their big feelings and solve problems.
“We used to think that preschool was about fun and games,” Berry said. “Now we think that preschool gives kids the essential skills they need to be successful in elementary school and beyond.”
Teachers in the upper grades comment that they often overhear kids at recess working out a problem using the conflict management skills they learned as 3 and 4-year-olds. This radiates to peer interactions, classroom climate, academic performance, and school attendance.
Helgren, as principal, does not take her teaching staff for granted. She recognizes that teaching can be rewarding, but also demanding and stressful. She leads and problem solves each day. When staff complained that the new literacy adoption wasn’t addressing the unique needs of their students, many of whom were two grade levels behind reading benchmark standards, Helgren invited curriculum experts to the district to work with Yoncalla teachers. They fine tuned their approach and built on existing skills and resources. That approach has helped teachers address specific needs relevant to their students, and elementary literacy scores have climbed.
The school has also adopted a culture of mindfulness to offset the stress and fatigue that comes with each day. Yoga classes are available, helping teachers ground themselves and refresh. The staff room is designed for connection with no teaching supplies or copy machines allowed. Helgren encourages self care and incentivizes staff to do so by participating in wellness activities. All of these efforts are designed to boost staff morale, fight burnout, and create connection so the adults at Yoncalla can truly work in service to children. Collectively, they are guided by a single, recurring question: what is best for kids?
An Ecosystem of Care and Community
IIn Yoncalla, a multitude of community members are at work to make the town the best place to be a kid. Transformation has been possible because of an engaged community committed to growth, to acknowledging its history and recognizing its strengths and assets. Humble leadership and deeply respectful partnership built the trust necessary to make meaningful change, and ultimately bring about healing.
“Yoncalla is a big deal,” Berry said.
“Everything we do here is a collaboration,” Helgren said. “We value each other. We’re working on positivity, and that positivity is contagious.”
“The changes we’ve made, the investments in preschool and in children in general… it will pay off forever,” Berry said.
The hills around Yoncalla are still lush with evergreen trees, and in some ways are a reminder that the town has recreated itself, persevered. Inside the school walls, teachers, parents, family members, and community leaders ground themselves in the idea that they are planting seeds for the future. The work they are doing today, and the seeds they are planting, creates the foundation for a new tomorrow, an ecosystem of care and community meant to transform the lives of children, their families, and Yoncalla’s future generations.