Karen Twain’s quest to help every child in Oregon learn to read by third grade began when she herself was in elementary school and continued through 29 years as a teacher, counselor and principal in the Tigard-Tualatin School District.
Since Feb. 1 Karen has led the Governor’s Reading Initiative and the statewide implementation of full-day kindergarten as an executive on loan to the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Education Investment Board. Karen discovered her passion early in life. As a grade school student, Karen became a peer tutor for students with disabilities, a role she repeated in high school. She spent her junior year in college in Israel and volunteered at a school for kids with disabilities.
“I’ve always really enjoyed working with kids … I knew from an early age kids were going to be my thing,” says Karen. “One of the things I am passionate about is making sure folks with disabilities have quality lives.”
She began her career in education as a first-grade teacher, moved into special education, next became a school counselor and later a principal. She led the Tigard-Tualatin District’s first inclusion program in 1986 to integrate students with dis- abilities into local schools. As principal of Metzger Elementary, she led an ethnically diverse, low-income school to multiple Closing the Achievement Gap Awards.
Metzger serves students from about 25 countries and has a high percentage of students from low-income families. Karen says when she arrived to lead the school, despite fantastic teachers, “people weren’t seeing the achievement we wanted. We tried different things and eventually were recognized with the state’s Closing the Achievement Gap Award.” From 2005 to 2012, each year seven schools from around the state were named Celebrating Student Success Champion Schools for their outstanding work in closing the achievement gap.
When Karen went to accept the award, she noticed that Metzger was the only winning school without full-day kindergarten. She says she realized how important that was and convinced her district it was a good idea.
“Then we started to surge,” she says, which resulted in more closing the gap awards. So she joined a committee to promote legislation for full-day kindergarten statewide. She was elected chair of the committee and the legislation passed in 2011, with implementation in 2015. When the legislation takes effect, districts that offer full-day kindergarten will receive state funding and will no longer be allowed to charge parents for a full-day option, a practice that exacerbated the achievement gap. Karen says a recent survey of the state’s school districts showed almost every district intends to provide full-day kindergarten in 2015. Her efforts attracted attention statewide, and she soon was recruited to help other schools achieve the same success as Metzger.
“Karen is an exceptional leader who, as an elementary principal, catalyzed unprecedented student achievement increases year after year,” says Chief Education Officer Nancy Golden of the Oregon Education Investment Board. “She is known and respected statewide, and we couldn’t think of a better person to lead one of our most critical efforts: to ensure all students are reading at or above grade level by third grade. I know Karen will make a tremendous difference for our 550,000 + students in Oregon.”
That enthusiastic endorsement is echoed by Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rob Saxton of the Oregon Department of Education: “Karen is one of the most capable people I have worked with in my 32 years in education. She did an unbelievable job turning around a high-poverty, highly diverse elementary school in great part due to her implementation of full-day kindergarten and a high-quality reading initiative. I couldn’t image anyone better to develop our state initiatives in those areas and support districts around our state in developing high-quality reading and kindergarten programs.”
Though Karen loves spending her days with children, she says it was impossible to refuse the request from Rob and Nancy. “They asked me to get kids reading,” says Karen. “This one really spoke to me. People go into education to make a difference. This could be huge for this state.”
Karen says improving reading levels benefits both the individual and society as a whole.
“If students are not reading by third grade, they are more likely to drop out, be incarcerated and have lower paying jobs,” she says. “So to me it is critical for Oregon and our social and economic success. These little guys really are our future. If we don’t teach them now, what will they look like when they are big?”
Karen is well aware that even big kids can be helped. In 2010 she became the director of Alternative Programs for the Tigard-Tualatin district and created the district’s Online Academy in 2012. While catching up in alternative schools is “doable” for older students, Karen says, “I want those kids feeling successful at age 5. With full-day kindergarten and literacy efforts, we can ID problems at an early age rather than having to wait till they fail. It takes less intervention at 5 than if we wait till third, fifth or eighth grade.”
Currently achievement tests show only 66% of third-graders are reading. As the state’s literacy director, Karen is working with state government to create a reading initiative with a goal of 100% of third-graders reading by 2025, but if the legislation is passed in 2015 and schools implement it in 2016, she expects a huge bump by 2020 when the first group of third-graders will have had the benefit of the program throughout their school careers.
“The legislation will include full day kindergarten, curriculum, literacy coaches, professional development, Response to Intervention, which focuses on early ID of struggling students and then providing interventions, and a heavy focus on equity,” says Karen.
Students need phonics, vocabulary and comprehension to be able to read fluently. When students from poverty and other countries enter school they don’t have as rich a vocabulary, so they are already behind. Karen sees full-day kindergarten as one tool to help students close the gap.
“There are fantastic teachers out there,” says Karen. “They love kids and want to see them succeed. That’s the best.”
“I’m optimistic, because if you lay the groundwork kids are always going to rise to the occasion,” she adds. “As long as I’m around kids or working to benefit kids, I love going to work and I’m happy. I’m really sure that is how life should be.”
As passionate as she is about education, Karen says she also cares deeply about Judaism. The daughter of David and Sue Twain, she grew up in the Southwest Portland/Beaverton area with two older brothers, Michael and Robbie Twain. Though her mother passed away about 10 years ago, her father still lives in the home where she grew up, just blocks from where she lives now. The family belonged to Congregation Neveh Shalom, but Karen was the child who was most into the traditions. While in high school, Karen was twice regional president of United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth group. She was so active at Neveh Shalom that she was given a key to the synagogue so she could get in to set up and run programs.
She considers Rabbi Joshua Stampfer a mentor who motivated her with great discussions in Sunday school and at Camp Solomon Schechter. Now Rabbi Emeritus at Neveh Shalom, Rabbi Stampfer fondly recalls Karen’s involvement and enthusiasm: “From her earliest years in our religious school, Karen displayed great enthusiasm for all her studies, asking questions and volunteering for any project. As a camper at Camp Solomon Schechter, as counsellor and director, and now as co-president (of the camp board) she has demonstrated extraordinary leadership skills to the camp. It is no surprise to me that the Governor has chosen her to head state wide programs in the field of education, which I know she will fulfill with great success.”
From both personal experience and national studies, Karen knows that three things promote a strong Jewish identity in youth: attending religious school, going to Jewish summer camp and visiting Israel. So she and her partner of 20+ years, Bridget Cross, have pursued that path for their children, Marian Twain, 15, and Oliver Twain 13. Marian and Oliver both attend Hebrew High at Neveh Shalom and go to Solomon Schechter every summer. In the next few years, Karen expects they will go to Israel. While she hopes to do a family trip at some point, Karen says she wants them to go with their peers first so they can experience the county and meet people.
Karen went to Solomon Schechter every summer – first as a camper and later as a counselor. She says she made many lifelong friends there including Wendy Rosen (AIPAC director for Oregon and Washington) and Perri Floom (Eytan), who lives in Israel. “We all grew up at camp together; there is something special about that.” Karen first went to Israel on a USY Pilgrimage, then returned for a junior year abroad and two visits as an adult, where she has enjoyed seeing her camp friend Perri. She believes her children will develop the same kinds of friendships and connections she did at Schechter. “Camp creates a Jewish community where you learn to be a Jew without thinking about it,” says Karen. “My kids come home jazzed, and I didn’t have to do anything but send them to camp.”
This year Oliver has traveled to Washington and Canada to attend bar and bat mitzvahs of his camp friends. Karen describes Marian and Oliver as “very kind kids” and says the family regularly volunteers together feeding the homeless and helping at shelters. “They are aware how lucky they are and know how important it is to help other people.”
They are also involved in other areas. Marian plays volleyball for Sunset High School and is a ninth-grader in Beaverton’s Arts and Communications magnet school. A seventh-grader at Cedar Park Middle School, Oliver plays basketball and goes on a trip with Karen each summer to see professional baseball games.
Karen says she has enjoyed the state post “way more than I expected – the talent, passion and intelligence has been great,” but she says she plans to return to the Tigard-Tualatin District in the summer of 2015.
“I’ve been in the district 29 years, so I have a lot of loyalty and I hope to retire around kids – that gives me energy,” she says.