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Five Questions: Terry Brandon

Riverdale School District's relatively new superintendent has decades of education experience


Photo Credit: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Riverdale Superintendent Terry Brandon has been married to his wife, Shirley, for 43 years. He's worked in education for 41 years.Terry Brandon, who joined the Riverdale School District as superintendent in July 2013, has four decades of experience in education, including 11 as a superintendent.

He has also worked in the classroom, teaching industrial arts and mathematics, and has served as an elementary school principal, a curriculum director, a technology director and a human resources director.

Brandon and his wife, Shirley, have been married for 43 years. They have two children, both grown, and two grandchildren — one in grade school and the other in junior high.

Recently, we talked with Brandon about the challenges facing Riverdale and the opportunities that make the district unique.

What currently are the greatest challenges facing Riverdale School District, besides the budgetary issues common to all Oregon school district?

Since Riverdale is a small school district, we don’t employ a large staff to handle many of the operational needs. We dedicate the majority of our resources to the classroom; therefore, our administrators carry out multiple responsibilities. As superintendent, I have to be a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to the operation of the school district. I am the maintenance supervisor, custodial supervisor and transportation supervisor, among other roles.

Riverdale School District recently has undergone major technological upgrades. What were some of the key planning strategies that district officials, school board members and the community used to make those improvements happen?

When I was hired, technology had already been identified as an area of focus in our Strategic Plan. That prompted the foundation of a Technology Committee and the formation of a Technology Plan, out of which came recommendation for Riverdale to move to a one-to-one ratio of computers to students.

We approached that goal with the Technology Committee (comprising individuals who had technological expertise or interest, though it was open to anyone who wanted to attend) and adopted the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) published by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). NETS is a comprehensive set of standards for effective learning, teaching and leading in the digital age.

I found it interesting that part of our discussion centered on whether to choose Mac vs. PC, which was the same discussion I had 30 years ago. Riverdale chose to go with the best machine for the specific purpose, which led us to purchase a mix of machines for our schools.

We implemented an interest-driven rollout, meaning that we began with teachers who showed an interest in increasing the use of technology in their instructional setting. Technology is simply a tool for enhancing curriculum, and it shouldn’t be forced. We found that with our interest-driven process, the rollout was organic and generated excitement from other teachers who observed what the technology was allowing their colleagues to do. It also served to self-regulate the pace at which computers have made their way into our classrooms.

What advice would you offer to help other districts pursuing the one-student-per-device ratio and other technological advances in infrastructure and server capacity that Riverdale School District recently has achieved?

Making the technology leap needs to be a priority. Our stake in the ground was our Strategic Plan, which gave us permission to move forward.

It is also important to be transparent and be sure to look at the entire picture before you start. We evaluated the capacity of our wireless network and realized it needed to be beefed up first. By looking as far down the road as you can, you can implement strategically. If we had put the cart before the horse and spent all our funds on new technology without making sure the infrastructure could support it, our implementation would have stalled.

We made sure to have a tech-savvy person who understood what we needed in order to end up with our desired capacity. That way we were able to build on a strong foundation.

As someone with four decades of experience in public education, much of it at the top administrative level, what do you see as the four most important lessons you’ve learned?

1. The biggest lesson I have learned is to actively listen to everyone you talk to — staff, parents, school board and even neighboring superintendents. Even if you don’t agree with everything they are saying, there is always a nugget you can learn from and use.

2. Reach out to your community and parents. They are really willing and able to help, but many times they are hesitant because they may not feel their input is welcome. At Riverdale, we engage parents as active participants in their children’s education. They are the child’s first teacher and one the child will go back to again and again. When working with the child, we need to work with the parent to make sure they have the same information. We are also fortunate at Riverdale to have a very active Parent Teacher Club that is always willing to step up and help on a project, provide insight or generate action.

3. It is really important to address students’ needs as they come to us, and to do the best we can for them. You need to meet them where they are at that particular time. The first few days of school are spent determining that benchmark so that we can tailor the learning experience to the children — it’s not a one-size-fits-all process.

4. As educators, we need to treat children as if they are our own. Parents entrust us to educate and care for their children when they come to school. It’s important to communicate to parents that you are looking out for their children’s welfare, and to also communicate that to the students so they feel safe to grow and explore.

Students go through a major academic transformation from kindergarten to high school. What are the most important areas of intellectual growth that students should have, and what are a few simple ways to help them grow?

Riverdale School District embraces the Ten Common Principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools. One of the most fundamental principles is helping students learn to use their minds well. Two specific areas of focus for us are reading and math. We strategically align our resources to support these foundational skills for our students, making both subjects come alive for them.

The single most important area of intellectual growth students should have is to learn to love to read. Without the ability to read and understand what they are reading, many doors will be closed to them. To that end, parents (as the first and favorite teacher) can help by both reading to their children and listening to their children read out loud. At our grade school, we are constantly talking about reading for pleasure, and we are working hard to increase access to books by establishing classroom libraries by grade, beyond our school library collection.

When it comes to mathematics, it is important to ensure that children are not learning math in a vacuum. Anything parents can do to show real life applications of math (e.g. checking store receipts to see if it’s correct, calculating square footage for a household project, using fractions in a recipe) will show a child that working with numbers has real-world applications. It has always been difficult to convince children that they are going to use this stuff, but now math programs are evolving and the use of hands-on applications help. When you walk into our math classrooms today, it’s much different than it was early on in my career. Math class is active, students demonstrate how they arrive at their answers and employ more than one method for solving a problem. The students are having fun as they learn new approaches to math.

Know of an education leader in the community you’d like to see interviewed in a Five Questions feature? Contact Jillian Daley at 503-636-1281 ext. 109 or jdaley@lakeoswegoreview.com.

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