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District seeks $6 million grant to keep schools safe

According to a student focus group, racial tension does exist in Tigard-Tualatin schools

The Tigard-Tualatin School District is trying to shake the stigma of being the homogeneous and trouble-free district.

The district has its problems, said Petrea Hagen-Gilden, director of student services. But with the help of local communities, the district has had a track record of responding to issues with positive and proactive measures.

Thus a misconception has formed that the district's schools and its students don't have any major problems with things like violence, drugs, racial tension and stressful learning environments.

But the problems do exist.

And in a 172-page grant proposal, district officials concentrated on these areas to stress the need for a $6 million grant to fund a program that will make Tigard-Tualatin schools safer.

'The grant is not all about dealing with problems,' Hagen-Gilden said. 'It's about building a support system so that we don't experience what other districts have experienced with fast drastic changes.'

The grant would enable the district to hire a director to head the Tigard Tualatin Alliance for Successful Kids. The goal of the program would be to decrease the number of students who do not attend school because they feel unsafe, decrease the number of students who are engaged in physical fights, decrease the number of self-reported use of marijuana and alcohol, increase the number of students receiving school-based mental health and increase the number of students receiving community mental health.

Tigard-Tualatin isn't the inner city, Hagen-Gilden admitted. But even without the big-city feel, students in Tigard and Tualatin still report a feeling of vulnerability to physical violence, drugs and alcohol at school, according to district focus groups conducted earlier this month.

'We also heard from focus groups that there is a lot of racial tension,' Hagen-Gilden said.

The district's makeup has changed a lot in the last decade. Just since 2001, the number of schools in the district that had more than 40 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch went from one to four schools. Hagen-Gilden said that with the rise of poverty numbers in Washington County, the Tigard-Tualatin School District is seeing the same change in poverty-level and homeless families entering the district.

And now minorities make up about 30 percent of the district's student population. Along with a diverse population, however, the district has also encountered a big achievement gap.

The district's 2006-2007 report card from the state showed that 44.7 percent of Hispanic students did not meet benchmarks for English/language arts testing. And 50.2 percent of Hispanic students in the district did not meet benchmarks in mathematics. About 29 percent of African American students did not meet benchmarks in English and 35.4 percent did not meet benchmarks in math.

But for white students, less than 20 percent failed to reach benchmarks.

The district has invested in several programs in the last few years to address closing the achievement gap including reading programs, Spanish-language classes for English Language Learners, hiring bilingual and bi-cultural teachers and instituting Courageous Conversations, a program designed to open up dialogue about racial achievement gaps.

And now the district is pursuing the federally funded Safer Schools Grant. Only 55 grants will be awarded this year by the government. The chances for Tigard-Tualatin to receive one of the grants are hard to judge. School districts in Forest Grove and Sherwood have also submitted applications for the grants. But one thing in the district's favor maybe that federal officials likely have never heard of the Tigard-Tualatin School District or its squeaky clean image in the community, Hagen-Gilden said.

The $6 million grant would enable the district to run a program that focuses on safe school environments, violence prevention, drug prevention, student behavior and emotional support, mental health services and early childhood social and emotional learning.

The program would accomplish this through networking with law enforcement, mental health agencies, the Washington County Juvenile Department, local advisory councils and community forums.

The grant provides funding for only four years. After that, the district would hope to have created a sustainable program operating through a network of social services, billing and possibly other future grant funding. Hagen-Gilden said the program would also be designed to open up communication in Southeast Washington County between social services and programs and youth and their families who are looking for help.