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What a great day to be a Viking

Kudos - Forest Grove High School gains national award, while Principal John O'Neill is recognized as one of the best educators in the U.S.
by: Chase Allgood, Principal John O’Neill (left) joins other dignitaries on the gymnasium floor at Forest Grove High School for a morning of recognition and awards.

Heady anticipation hung in the air as Principal John O'Neill strode to the microphone at Forest Grove High School last Thursday.

With dignitaries ranging from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo to Forest Grove Mayor Richard Kidd occupying folding chairs on the gym floor, students and faculty wondered what, exactly, was about to happen.

All they knew was that it was going to be good news.

After the pep band rollicked through two rounds of the Viking fight song, O'Neill introduced Forest Grove School District Superintendent Jack Musser, who, in turn, recognized two rows of special guests gathered in the packed room.

O'Neill did a flawless job welcoming Castillo, who announced that FGHS had been named a 'Breakthrough School' in December by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

But when he grabbed the microphone for a third time - after hearing he was one of two people in Oregon to win a Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award and a $25,000 check - O'Neill practically stuttered.

'I normally check these things out with my wife, but I want to kick in $5,000 toward the high school's turf field project,' he finally said.

The room erupted in applause, and students descended from the bleachers to give O'Neill hugs and high-fives. After that, he was engulfed by former recipients of the Milken award, including Forest Grove Community School co-founder Robin Lindsley (1994) and former Echo Shaw Elementary School Principal Enedelia Schofield (2000).

In announcing O'Neill's award, Milken Family Foundation senior vice president Jane Foley said the prize was aimed at 'recognizing the all-important role educators play in our society.

'One of the most outstanding educators in the country is right here in this room,' Foley said before naming O'Neill a winner. 'The Milken award is so prestigious it's been called the Oscars of teaching.'

O'Neill will travel to Los Angeles in March to formally receive his award at a national education conference.

Wave of announcements

Almost overwhelming in scope, last week's wave of feel-good announcements about Forest Grove High just seemed to keep coming during the hour-long assembly.

'What a great day to be a Viking!' Musser exclaimed in front of the 1,950 assembled students, state Rep. Chuck Riley, several Forest Grove city councilors, Viking Booster Club president Janet Peters and school board members Fred Marble, Ralph Brown and Dawn Pratt.

'You're receiving national recognition - people around the state of Oregon now know what Forest Grove is about,' he said. 'Thank you for your hard work and your dedication.

'We're not done, folks. We'll continue to push.'

Castillo, who heads up an education department that oversees a half-million students in 1,200 public schools across the state, simply beamed.

'This is such an amazing school,' she said. 'I can't tell you how proud I am of each and every one of you. We just love the success you're having here at Forest Grove High School.'

Named by the Oregon Department of Education two years in a row as a 'Celebrating Student Success' school for closing the achievement gap, FGHS last month made national news when it received the Met-Life-NASSP award and an accompanying $5,000 grant. O'Neill will pick up that plaque and check in February in San Antonio, Texas.

Castillo herself nominated Forest Grove for the honor.

And, Forest Grove resident and retired businessman Harold Alfred Wyatt, 94, announced Jan. 9 that he plans to donate $1 million toward an ongoing scholarship fund for college-bound FGHS seniors (see story, page 8A).

The endowment is expected to fund at least $45,0000 in scholarships each year.

'We want to get it done in time for this year's graduating class - the Class of 2008,' O'Neill said, to even more applause.

'We want to send even more of you to college who need some help.'

Positive change

The news of O'Neill's award, which came as a complete surprise to him, highlighted an undercurrent of positive change that's been occurring day-by-day at Forest Grove High for the last six years.

Since fall 2002, when O'Neill came on board, the high school's graduation rate has climbed steadily and its dropout rate has fallen.

Forest Grove students improved their assessment scores in math by 39 percent in five years.

Seventy-nine percent of FGHS students met state benchmarks in reading last spring, compared to 50 percent in 2001-02.

O'Neill was comfortable taking only a portion of the credit for academic improvements at his school.

'We have an incredible staff, which deserves so much appreciation,' he said. 'And, you know, we have absolutely wonderful students.'

Foley, a former teacher and principal in the Chicago area, now acts as a cheerleader for the education profession. She pointed to O'Neill as a shining example of 'the kind of positive influence' educators can have on young people.

'From a transition program for incoming freshmen to an expanded advanced placement curriculum, Mr. O'Neill is intent on creating a school environment where all students can thrive and succeed,' said Dr. Foley.

O'Neill met 'a very specific set of criteria' to earn his award, including 'innovative practices and results, leadership beyond his school and a strong potential for staying in the education profession,' she noted.

Milken award winners are considered to be in the top 1 percent of educators across America, Foley added.

Since 1987, more than 2,300 teachers and principals have earned the award. Oregon's other National Educator Award for 2008 went to Elisa Schorr, a science teacher at Portland's Roosevelt High School.

In Forest Grove, however, O'Neill was the talk of the town.

'John is a great role model to everyone around him,' Foley said. 'He's just an amazing guy.'