The town of Weiser has known its school district superintendent Jim Reed in various roles throughout the years, from an English teacher to a wrestling coach, from the assistant principal at the high school to the principal at the middle school. Every October, Weiser children also see him as an excellent Halloween host, one who constructs a haunted house and hands out candy. Whether he’s doling out sweets to trick-or-treaters or managing the school district’s budget in his 14th year as superintendent, Reed continues to be devoted to community and education in Weiser.
“I feel so fortunate to live in this community,” Reed says. “This community has supported schools and the people who work in the schools.”
The school system serves as an integral part of the Weiser community, Reed says, calling the high school the town’s flagship. It’s clear to Reed that this small community of about 5,000 people and two stoplights stands by the statement on the town’s welcome sign: “We Love Our Kids.”
Though small in size, especially compared to its urban neighbors like Boise and Meridian, Weiser School District has grappled with big issues and found ways to achieve success.
More than half of Weiser’s 1,700 students come from homes rating below the poverty level, based on those who qualify for free and reduced lunches. “We have quite a large number that are limited by resources and means,” Reed says. “But those who don’t have a lot work very hard for their kids.”
Reed says that in a rural community, people support one another, and children don’t stand out as being “poor.” The poverty level, though high, isn’t as pronounced in the classroom as it could be. And while some students’ families may struggle financially, Reed believes that education is a crucial part of transitioning beyond the poverty level.
“The single most important component in getting kids out of poverty is education,” Reed says. “We want to help families move out of poverty.”
The school district has identified various ways to improve education in its classrooms, but also helps children before they reach kindergarten.
More than a decade ago, the district received a grant to begin the “Reading Readiness” program, which provides preschool children with materials to cultivate learning early in their development.
“We realized that if we’re going to make an impact on kids’ learning, we have to do it before they even enter school,” Reed says.
The district hired a coordinator for the project, and then sent out materials to Weiser’s youngest residents—babies to school-age children. The educational material tells parents or guardians what they should expect at certain stages, providing checklists, such as what a two-year-old should be doing developmentally. If the child appears to be behind in an area of development, parents can receive information for further screening.
Reed says the district has seen significant results since the program began. In fact, when the grant funding ran out, school officials decided to operate Reading Readiness out of the district’s regular budget.
The district funds another reading program called Success for All, which lays out daily 90-minute reading periods for kindergarten through fifth graders. The Weiser district couples Success for All with the Accelerated Reader program, which keeps track of the books students read. Teachers can use the Accelerated Reader results to set reading goals and provide rewards for students.
In addition to the reading programs, the district funds a math initiative and is working on implementing a writing initiative.
“Those are things we’re going to stay the course on,” says Reed. “We’ve maintained that commitment over the years, and it’s paid off.”
Tim Folke, an auditor who reviewed the district last year, says Weiser’s investment in these programs makes it unique. “[They] fund programs like Success for All and Reading Readiness out of [their] regular budget. No one else in the state does that kind of thing. It’s an example of local control at its best,” Folke says.
The district also educates a high population of migrant students, many of whom struggle with the English language. More than 300 of Weiser’s students, 18 percent of the total student population, are considered Limited English Proficient (LEP). “We work with students who are new to the United States and have little or no English language skills,” Reed says. “It is our responsibility to help these students at whatever level they are when we enroll them, and help them reach their intellectual potential and become responsible citizens.”
Reed says the district has hired staff trained specifically to teach LEP students in elementary to high school. “We’re committed to all students. The board and school personnel are committed to getting them up to speed,” Reed says.
The commitment has paid off. Last year, Weiser’s LEP students scored significantly higher than the state average. In the Spring 2006 Idaho State Assessment Tests, the percentage of Weiser LEP students who scored proficient or higher in reading was better than the state’s average in every grade. For fifth-graders, 84.2 percent of Weiser’s students were ranked proficient or higher in reading, compared to just 58.4 percent for the state. In mathematics and language usage, the Weiser LEP data was higher than the state percentage in six out of the seven grades tested. In the third-grade language usage test, 100 percent of Weiser’s LEP students scored proficient or higher, compared to the state average of 65.6 percent. “We are very proud of our LEP students,” Reed says.
To encourage success beyond high school for LEP students, the district helps fund trips for students and their parents to regional colleges. In the last two years, students from the Future Hispanic Leaders of America have visited Boise State University, Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston and the University of Idaho in Moscow. This year, students also visited Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. Reed says the purpose of the trip is to raise the level of interest in higher education by showing students and families what’s available and getting them familiar with college campuses.
Reed says the district’s Hispanic students don’t always have a clear understanding of college, and some parents have no experience at all with higher education.
“So, by visiting campus, spending the night, eating in the cafeteria and, in some cases having the parents along, there is this sudden realization that this is not some unknown, mystery place,” Reed says. “Also, whenever a mom or dad has gone along, they now have a picture in their mind of where their child is going to live and go to school.”
Reed says the district pays for the transportation costs, and the colleges house and feed students. This way, students and families only pay a very small portion of costs, Reed says.
Weiser High School assistant principal Todd Zucker attended a trip with the students, and saw the need to offer the trip for all students that lack a connection to college. Reed says the district is going to make the trip available to more students in the future. Though Weiser doesn’t offer a college, the district encourages students to pursue higher education.
As of now, Weiser remains a rural community. Economically, the town depends mostly on agriculture. But this small town may soon experience the rapid growth that other Idaho communities are experiencing. “With the population growth in the Boise to Nampa corridor and growth in communities along the interstate like Fruitland, and with the planning of future subdivisions and the purchasing of land around Weiser by developers, many in Weiser believe this little community is on the verge of more rapid growth,” Reed says.
For now, however, Weiser is enjoying slow growth. In 1969, the school district housed 1,464 students. The student population reached 1,700 in 2006. The small town and slow growth gives the district its unique character, Reed says.
“Being in a rural community, we are able to maintain our own identity,” Reed says. “This ‘ruralness’ facilitates good community relationships, safety, pride and camaraderie.”
Tessa Schweigert, Boise State University