B end High School certainly deserved the honor it received from Special Olympics Oregon on Jan. 11.
If, like me, you’re the parent of a child with an intellectual or other disability, sending your child to Bend High can help relieve some of the anxiety that comes with moving into each new school. You know, for example, that should students tease your son or daughter, the school will respond swiftly. You know, too, that thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of Robert Tadjiki, who teaches there, your child will be included in the general school population.
What you may not know is how Bend High went from a school with the usual share of mean kids to one with a reputation for being caring, inclusive and kind, not only where kids with disabilities are concerned, but toward all students.
The change was no accident. Principals Mark Neffendorf, H.D. Weddel and Chris Reese, in that order, also have put time and effort into making sure the culture at Bend High is one of caring and acceptance.
It began not long after Neffendorf arrived in Bend in 2004 from Scappoose High School in Western Oregon. Weddel, already on the Bend High faculty and a friend of Neffendorf’s, was named assistant principal in 2005.
The two believed the school was ripe for change. Neffendorf had talked with faculty members in his first days on the job, asking what was good and what was not. Answers to the latter questions pointed back to problems with the school’s culture.
He and Weddel had a vision of the culture they wanted, and they set out to create it.
They started out by observing, walking the halls when students and faculty were present, drawing conclusions about what should be changed. One thing that stood out, Neffendorf said, was the faculty’s laissez-faire attitude of independence, working well individually but not focusing — in his mind — on the team.
Then, Weddel says, it was a matter of building the relationships that would encourage the changes they wanted.
They began holding class meetings at the beginning of each school year, working to instill in students the idea that they and their fellows were part of a big family, one whose members looked after one another.
They built on that idea in a variety of ways, bringing in people from the outside, honoring alumni from the past, and so on. They did something else, as well. They promised students that harassment would be dealt with promptly, if it was reported, and they lived up to that promise.
But you cannot change a school’s culture just by changing your expectations of students, and Neffendorf and Weddel recognized that. When hiring teachers they looked, as I’m sure all principals do, for the best teachers they could find.
“Best” didn’t just mean most experienced or academically qualified, however. Both men note they wanted the best in the classroom, of course, but they also wanted teachers who were involved in their schools, coaching, perhaps, or doing other things that built relationships with students.
All this is not to say Bend High is perfect, populated by little angels who never have an angry thought, word or deed. Of course, it’s not. Human nature doesn’t work that way. Still, it is a place where all students are valued, at least most of the time.
That’s important, I think. It’s why Special Olympics Oregon honored the school, and it’s why it feels so safe to the parents who send their children there.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, firstname.lastname@example.org