Learning to Read Behind the Fence: The path to prison is often paved by illiteracy. Yet many prisoners aren’t being taught to read

About 15% of adults in Oregon prisons read below an eighth-grade level, an analysis by the Statesman Journal found. Nationwide, an estimated 70% or more of incarcerated people can’t read at the fourth-grade level.

It’s not clear whether Oregon prisoners are actually more literate since there is no state-by-state comparative data or federal oversight. Corrections officials could not explain why the Oregon numbers are so different than national surveys.

State law requires the majority of these prisoners take classes while incarcerated. Yet the Statesman found nearly half of Oregon inmates who qualify as low-level readers — those who read below an eighth-grade level — have never been enrolled. And funding and access to these programs are not prioritized.

This despite studies that show specifically helping the low-reader population could have a significant impact on the broader community.

Those who complete educational programs while in prison are less likely to return and are less likely to engage in violence during incarceration. U.S. Department of Justice studies also show the positive impact these programs have when formerly incarcerated individuals return to society, including a higher chance of being gainfully employed.

“A lot of these folks have been in the criminal justice system since they were young children,” criminal justice reform advocate Julianne Jackson of Salem said. “So, those cute little folks that we should have taught to read before? They’re adults now. And they still deserve that opportunity. They still deserve the opportunity to do better.”

This in-depth coverage was made possible via a reporting fellowship from the Education Writers Association. Read the full series, in English or Spanish, here. In addition to the main article, there is a secondary story on the K-12 connection and an explainer piece on how we made this project.

Education Writers Association: How to Cover Student Achievement Losses and Full Pandemic Recovery

Natalie Pate helps journalists understand and make the most of the Education Recovery Scorecard. This database compares student achievement losses amid COVID-19 and shows which student groups were most affected by disrupted learning at the local level. Data on 29 states (more to come) and the District of Columbia can be accessed.

Read the blog post here.

Eater PDX: 10 Food Bills to Follow in Oregon’s 2023 Legislative Session

The 2023 Oregon legislative session kicked off on Jan. 17 in Salem. Over the next five months, lawmakers will consider hundreds of proposed bills, many of which could impact how people access, handle, produce, and consume food.

Here’s a look at 10 food-related bills to follow this session. Read the story here.

Behavioral incidents spiked in Salem-Keizer schools as discipline measures changed. How is the district responding?

Dec. 2022: An investigation by the Statesman Journal found that throughout the 2021-22 school year, major disciplinary incidents — including physical threats, fights, computer misuse, sexual harassment and other aggressive behaviors — increased in Salem-Keizer Public Schools by nearly 55% compared to 2018-19, the last year students were in person full time.

Simultaneously, expulsions in the 2021-22 year compared to 2018-19 decreased by 42.5% and suspensions decreased by 25.9%, according to the Statesman’s analysis, as the district implemented programs that focus more on “restorative justice.”

Referrals to police, including “police-involved” and “police-notified” incidents, also decreased.

Expulsions and suspensions spanning 2018-2022 have been given disproportionately in favor of white and Asian students, meaning they received a smaller percentage of those consequences compared to the percentage of the student body they represent, and disproportionately against other students of color.

Data so far this year show things are improving in some areas, such as fewer fights and other acts of physical aggression.

Student-related employee injuries for school staff, however, have increased substantially when compared to last fall. And the local teachers union says the district isn’t doing enough to keep teachers safe.

Read the full investigation here.

Despite more teachers and fewer students, Oregon schools still struggle with staff shortages

Oct. 2022: Starting before the pandemic and continuing over the past few years, schools and education advocates in Oregon and nationwide have rung the alarm bells about a growing teacher shortage.

They’ve cited low pay, a negative perception of public education, increased workloads and a long list of requirements outside their job descriptions.

But an investigation by the Statesman Journal and Register-Guard found that while local teachers are dealing with many of those issues, the Willamette Valley is not so much facing a teacher shortage as it is a support staff shortage.

In fact, the number of teachers in the area’s largest districts has continued to grow while student numbers have declined.

Read the full investigation here.

Nightmare Factory: The annual extravaganza is more than a haunted house for the Oregon School for the Deaf

Oct. 2022: After being closed for two years due to COVID-19 restrictions, Salem’s premier haunted house is back.

But the Nightmare Factory isn’t any ordinary haunted house. It also serves as a learning opportunity for students and a key funding source for the Oregon School for the Deaf, the only dedicated school in the state for students in kindergarten through age 21 who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Read the full story here.

In-person school board meetings in doubt after investigation

Sept. 2022: Yelling during public testimony, arguments between attendees and board members, and an altercation in the parking lot at the Aug. 9 Salem-Keizer Public Schools board meeting led to an indefinite virtual-only option for public participation.

This is the second time in two years that Salem-Keizer has made meetings virtual out of safety concerns not related to the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s unclear how long the moratorium on in-person meetings — where anyone from the public can attend and speak — will last. Mediation between groups has yet to be initiated.

For now, board members, district leaders and the news media can meet in person, but others must watch the meetings on TV or online and participate via Zoom, phone or written testimony.

The events that played out most recently came after tensions boiled over between community groups that fall into competing ideologies — an issue happening in school board meetings across the country.

Read the in-depth story here.

District rejects second book ban request, keeps ‘Gender Queer’ in local high schools

July 2022: A second request to have a book removed from Salem-Keizer Public Schools libraries has been denied.

Earlier this year, members of the local parents’ group Salem Keizer We Stand Together took issue with the book “Stamped (for Kids): Racism, Anti-Racism, and You” in local elementary schools.

A district book review committee voted 8-1 in April to deny the request.

The process was seen at the time as a rare instance. A formal request to reconsider a book had not happened since 2018.

However, just weeks later, it happened again.

Community members submitted a formal complaint to Salem-Keizer this May regarding the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir.”

Read the full story here.

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