September 09, 2002 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

The numbers are undeniable.

Reading test scores for eight school districts in Union and Baker counties have jumped overall for grades 3-8 in the past year.

Assessment test scores for grades 3-8 indicate that the percentage of students who met or exceeded state benchmarks in Union and Baker counties, with one exception, jumped between 2 and 6 percent between 2001 and 2002.

"This is wonderful. … The improvement was higher than we expected,'' said La Grande High School Principal Doug Potter.

Potter believes the improvement can be linked to a heightened focus on reading. It is a focus made possible in part by a $180,000 grant a consortium of school districts in Union and Baker county received in the winter of 2001. All six of Union County's school districts plus the Baker and Pine Eagle school districts are in the consortium.

The application for the grant was prepared by Potter, who then was the La Grande School District's staff development and grant administrator; Pasco Arritola, the Union-Baker Education Service District's curriculum director; and Don Ulrey, superintendent of Baker School District.

Through the grant about 300 teachers in Union and Baker counties received training on strategies for improving students' reading skills. Two teachers from each school received training at workshops. These teachers, known as facilitators, then returned to their schools and conducted training sessions for their faculty.

"The facilitators should be applauded,'' Arritola said.

The training was provided over a 16-month period.

A portion of the training provided for teachers was modeled after a nationally recognized program used by the Kennewick School District in Washington.

Arritola said that ultimately the credit must go to the teachers and administrators of Union and Baker counties.

"This is a credit to them,'' Arritola said. "If it wasn't for the teachers and administrators it wouldn't go.''

This year's assessment test scores indicate that the percentage of students who met or exceeded state standards jumped by the following percentages: third grade: 3 percent; fourth grade: 1 percent; fifth grade: 2 percent; seventh grade: 5.9 percent and eighth grade: 6 percent.

At the sixth-grade level the percentage of students who met or exceeded state standards fell 4.5 percent. Arritola said that possible reasons for the sixth grade drop will soon be examined.

The scores for grades three, five and eight were based on state assessment tests given to all students at public schools in Oregon. The scores for students in grades four, six and seven were from the Oregon Plus test, which many school districts give but is not mandatory.

Potter said one cannot draw a direct cause-and-effect link to the improvement in reading scores and the grant. However, he is very encouraged by indications that the grant has made a difference.

"When teachers work together and focus on an area, they can definitely make a difference,'' Potter said.

La Grande School District Superintendent Jay Rowell said the benefits of the grant will be felt for years to come. He explained this is because the reading education training received by teachers will continue to be applied by them.

"As long as we have a good stable staff, we will see growth year after year,'' Rowell said.