November 20, 2001 11:00 pm

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

ENTERPRISE Wallowa County commissioners expressed pride in area schools this week after Commissioner Darrell McFetridge displayed a certificate lauding the schools for having the top ranking education index again this year.

Wallowa County is a well-educated, safe and healthy community, Commissioner Ben Boswell said.

McFetridge said he was pretty proud of our school systems, explaining that he accepted the award at Thursdays Association of Counties annual meeting in Pendleton.

Few Oregonians know that Wallowa County students are far and away the best overall achievers in reading and math in the third and eighth grades. This award is an opportunity to provide that recognition, said Oregon Progress Board Executive Director Jeff Tyrens.

Wallowa County also had the lowest high school dropout rate.

The county was ranked third in the public safety index, including the overall crime rate and in juvenile arrests. The county was one of four of the highest ranked counties with at least two top-three


Counties were chosen based on their performance in the Oregon Benchmark categories of improving Oregon quality of life through education, child well-being, public safety and economy.

In the economy index, Wallowa County ranked next to the bottom, just above Wheeler County.

Wallowa County Education Service District curriculum and school improvement specialist Linda Bauck was asked why a county with such economic challenges was doing so well academically.

Evidence in general shows the high-achieving schools to be located in communities enjoying good economic conditions, Bauck said, agreeing that this flies in the face of that trend.

Small class size was one factor, Bauck said. Even other service providers from outside the area have commented that it seems that in Wallowa County if a child needs help in the school or in the community, someone can be found to help, she said.

We have a lot of support systems in place here, from the school administrators to teachers and classroom assistants, she said.

It helps to keep kids from slipping between cracks. I believe in small rural schools the kids have more chances.

Caring community and families were other reasons, she said. Countywide, there is nearly 100 percent turnout at parent-teacher conferences, she added.

The kind of parental support and engagement seen in the county is like what can be found in the more affluent school districts, she said. There, parents of higher socioeconomic status are often engaged in a way that may be reflected in the relative higher academic success of their offspring.

That type of engagement is found in Wallowa County families, even though they lack the wealth, she said.

In the economic index, Union County tied for second place among the most improved counties. Factors included per capita income, wages, unemployment rate and net job growth.

In 1999, Union County was ranked 31st out of 36 counties for net job growth. Union Countys 2001 job ranking had climbed to 19th place. This brought the countys economic ranking up from 24th in 1999 to 17th for 2001.