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TTSD leader heads to Salem

Karen Twain will help bring free, full-day kindergarten to every school


by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - After nearly 30 years, Karen Twain, director of alternative programs for the Tigard-Tualatin School District, will leave the school district to serve as an executive on loan, for the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Education Investment Board. In nearly three decades, Karen Twain has held a lot of jobs in Tigard-Tualatin schools. But next month, Twain, one of the district’s top administrators, is stepping down in order to bring full-day kindergarten to schools across the state and teach children how to read.

The district announced last week that Twain, director of alternative programs for the district, would be taking a leave of absence in order to help implement free full-day kindergarten in Oregon schools, which is slated to begin in 2015. She will also take over Gov. John Kitzhaber’s statewide reading initiative, which calls for all students to be able to read by the third grade.

“We need to get the word out across the state and create some model programs,” Twain said. “A lot of places are already doing (full-day kindergarten), we just need to tweak a little piece of it here or there.”

Twain is the second administrator in the district in the past two years to be named to state-level positions, after former Superintendent Rob Saxton was named the head of Oregon’s K-12 school system in 2012.

Twain will serve as an “executive on loan,” for the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Education Investment Board. She will report to Saxton and Nancy Golden, the state’s chief education officer.

Twain is no stranger to the subject of full-day kindergarten. An avid supporter, Twain led the legislative committee that recommended the law, which was passed by the Legislature in 2011.

“You fantasize and dream about what could be,” Twain said, “and when you do, you start to realize that it’s not that far-fetched after all.”

It’s a passion that Twain has been working on for years, since her days serving as principal at Metzger Elementary School.

The school was working to close the racial achievement gap, Twain said, and she found one of the most effective ways to increase student performance was when the school instituted a free full-day program for kindergartners.

“The kids that had a full day did much better than kids that did a half-day,” Twain said. “And not just that year or the following, but throughout their schooling.”

Kindergarten is a tough subject to teach, Twain said, especially when students are only in the classroom for a few hours a day.

“The kids get there, they get their coats off, and they are squirrely, they are 5 or 6 years old,” Twain said. “So by time you get them settled and do any instruction, it’s very short, and then its time for recess, and then they’re going to go home.”

The solution to that problem is simple, Twain theorized, get kids in the classroom for a longer period of time.

“They get instruction throughout the day, and there is still time for recesses and learning how to behave,” Twain said. “You get them for a bigger period of time, and the more instruction kids have, the better they do.”

Along with kindergarten, Twain said the majority of her new job will focus on getting kids to read by the time they reach third grade.

“It’s hard to argue with the idea that everybody should read,” Twain said.

Literacy is an important part of a student’s upbringing, Twain said. If they don’t learn to read, they fall further behind.

“They will struggle to ever catch up,” Twain said. “It presents more life struggles for you. Students drop out more often; they go down paths that lead to poverty, or committing crimes. Not to be overly dramatic, but there are good stats about that.”

Teaching students to read is one of the most important things schools can do to ensure students’ future success.

“We’ve got to catch these kids when they are young,” Twain said. “Oregon’s economic and social future is tied to great schools and getting these kids to read.”

A question of funding

One major hurdle Twain faces with her new assignment is securing funding for the initiative and full-day kindergarten.

Oregon lawmakers passed the unfunded mandate to bring full-day kindergarten to schools three years ago, but they have yet to come up with a way to pay for the plan.

Twain said the funding will come, as long as people don’t let politics get in the way of doing what is right.

“If you can keep the focus on the kids, things will start falling into place,” she said.

Currently, the state only funds half-day kindergarten, so full-day programs are either not offered in some districts, or districts find other means of paying for full-day classes, such as parent tuition or scholarships.

“Oftentimes, the parents have to pay for it, and that makes me crazy,” Twain said. “That means the parents that can afford it do, and even if scholarships are available, that’s limited. Some kids will get those scholarships, and others won’t. We need to get to a place where education, particularly kindergarten, is available to all kids. Right now, the people who can afford it, get it, and the ones that can’t, don’t. That’s not right. Every kid should have the same access to get an education.”

Twain’s first day on the job falls on the same day the Legislature is set to begin its 30-day session in Salem on Feb. 3.

“That’s part of the reason I need to get down there,” she said. “We need to do some legislative work to get the initiative off the ground.”

‘I’ll be back’

Twain said she plans to return to Tigard-Tualatin after her work with the state wraps up, she said.

“This district means a lot to me,” Twain said. “It has always been on the cutting edge. And for me, honestly, I need to be around kids. That’s why I went into this work, and that’s how I plan to leave this work.”

Twain currently serves as director of alternative programs, helping struggling or expelled students get back on their feet, as well as leading the district’s fledgling online school.

“I love what I’m doing now,” she said. “I love the program extension and being able to create options for kids. Not everybody fits perfectly in the mold. And the more options you give, the more chance kids can find their niche and really succeed.”

In her 28-year career in the district, Twain has served in several roles, from special education teacher to school counselor, vice principal, principal and one of the district’s top administrators.

“You talk to people who haven’t enjoyed their careers, but I’m not one of them. I’ll keep doing it for as long as I can,” she said.



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