Molalla River Middle School is doing something right. Last month, Principal Mike Nelsen got an email from the Oregon Secretary of State Audits Division.

No, the school wasn’t being audited, but rather, the state is sending representatives to find out how the school is making so much progress toward closing the achievement gap.

“We are pleased to inform you that your school has demonstrated a trend of closing the achievement gap for 8th grade economically disadvantaged and Hispanic students in math and reading from 2004-05 to 2011-12,” Auditor Nicole Pexton wrote in the email.

Molalla River Middle School is one of 10 middle schools the state is visiting. The reps will be interviewing teachers and staff and observing classes.

“We want to emphasize that we are not auditing your school,” Pexton wrote, “only learning from its success so we can recommend measures the Oregon Department of Education could take to assist other schools in closing achievement gaps.”

The recognition is welcome, Nelsen said, as the school has travelled a long road full of changes that started years ago with the No Child Left Behind Act.

“Change is hard,” Nelsen said. “We’ve grumbled a lot. But my teachers bought into the changes and are committed to the kids … We have worked very hard to change our instructional practices.”

Nelsen said the staff paid attention to research on classroom practices, looking at what works and what doesn’t, and then worked toward creating a standard for the middle school.

“All the hard work from the teachers is paying off,” Nelsen said.

That work has resulted in significant changes over the last four to six years at Molalla River Middle School.

If students currently attending Molalla High School returned to the middle school, Nelsen said, “they wouldn’t recognize the way the classes are taught. It doesn’t matter who your teacher is in this building, you will get the same education from each one.”

While standardized education is important for ensuring that every child gets a quality education, it’s not as easy as simply creating the same classroom environment for every child because not all kids are the same.

All lessons are focused on meeting the state standard, which helps to ensure every kid gets the education they need, Nelsen said. “We focus on every student individually.”

Students’ schedules are created based on what each student needs, placing students in classes that best fit them, Nelsen said.

While the teachers are proud and grateful the state is recognizing their efforts, the students also should be proud, Nelsen said. “My kids are working their tails off … They’re learning stuff I learned in high school. The students are very focused.”

The change really comes down to the culture built in the school’s hallways.

In 2003 or 2004, Nelsen said, there were around 1,800 behavioral referrals. “About ten a day.” That number last year was down to around 400.

Kids used to hangout in the halls, goofing off, Nelsen said, but now they head straight to class. “I’m hoping the community recognizes the quality of education they have here.”

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