Building a new community foundation for Mill A School

Mill A School’s new staff stand in from of the Bobcat Pride case. Left to right are paraprofessional Greta Lundby, teacher of older grades Bob Rogers, superintendent and principal Dr. Benton Dorman, and teacher of younger grades Anastasia Gavenas.

Mill A School District #31 will be seeing changes in the coming years. Most recently the school has acquired all new staff including superintendent and principal Dr. Benton Dorman, and teachers Anastasia Gavenas and Bob Rogers.

All three are the new power house reinvigorating the school’s role in the Mill A community.

After the school experienced a significant downsizing process five years ago following a loss of federal force dollars, the school has been trying to find its way, “and this year we’re really working on righting the ship and making sure we’re financially solvent,” said Dorman.

Dorman started his career in southern California as a school psychologist in 1996, then completed his doctorate of education in organizational leadership in 2008. Two years ago, Dorman served as a special education administrator for schools in Skamania and Klickitat counties. Before signing on to work as Mill A’s principal and superintendent, Dorman worked 14 years as an administrator in special education.

“I’ve thought about us, this year, as being ‘Mill A School, new and improved,’ because we’re all new here, almost all of us are new here, and we are all about upgrading this school in every way we can,” explained Rogers.

Rogers, a fourth generation resident of and graduate of Mill A school, is Mill A’s teacher for older grades. He has built up 22 years of experience teaching high school math, the last nine were spent at Stevenson High School.

Gavenas joined Mill A as the younger grades teacher and previously substituted at Goldendale Primary School. Prior to that she worked for two years at Carson Elementary School as a member of the Washington Reading Corps. There she taught supplemental reading groups while boosting other literacy focused opportunities.

The new staff hopes to build a new foundation for the school in the Mill A community. The process began with a series of meetings held first with school staff, then the Mill A school board, and lastly with members of the community. All in order to learn who desires what from the school as a community center.

“We kind of just talked about the hopes and the dreams,” explained Dorman of the meetings held, “and what are people afraid of that’s going to happen with the school, and what kind of relationships do we have. It’s kind of like an inventory process…we see all the things that we have, and the liabilities, and the assets.”

“When we had our community vision meeting, we kind of came up with some priorities that we’re going to work on,” said Dorman, “and since Bob is a math expert, and his dad was a math expert, we’re going to be doing a focus on math this year- and working on kind of showing up our math. And so we’ve adopted a new program called Math in Focus, and so we’re really going to be focusing on that this year.”

The new staff at the Mill A school worked with the community to create a list of goals intended to steer the staff and students in a positive direction, and center the school as a place for the community to gather. In the coming year, Dorman, Gavenas, Rogers, and staff will work on improving the school’s, stability, sustainability, student math performance, community relationships, communication, and student behavior.

“We’re working on trying to build relationships with our community,” Dorman noted, “I think in the past there maybe hasn’t been a lot of discussion with the community about what’s going on here, and there’s been a lot of misinformation, and so we’re really going to work on communications. We have the website, and we have a weekly newsletter that goes out to folks and we’re just trying to get out there and let people know about us,” explained Dorman.

“And that’s something that came up at the ‘envisioning,’” noted Gavenas. “[All] all three groups that we did this ‘envisioning Mill A’ with, all of them, said we need better school community communication. So that’s one of the strong points we’ve really been focusing on.”

“Along those lines, even at the school board meeting and at the public meeting, there was an interest in the school being the community center for community events happening here,” added Rogers. “In the past years, long, long ago, there used to be open gym, and more events here.”

The school plans on continuing the open gym event by reinstating the program and opening up the school’s gym to the community starting Nov. 1 this year.

“So the other issue- the main thing that we want to shift is to more of a community based school. The other thing is that we’ve had a lot of discussion about stability and sustainability,” explained Dorman. “In years past when we were at the heyday, we had about 80 students or so, 80 to 100 students, and some people would like us to get back to that but small school funding is very tricky, you need like an advanced finance degree to fully know all the rules of it.”

“In large schools the more students you get the more money you get. It doesn’t work like that for us,” said Dorman. “Our breakeven point, financially, is about 30 students. So if we get over thirty students we’re dipping into our reserves, if we’re under 30 students then we’re fine, financially.”

“Building on that this current school board recognizes that if the school is going to survive we needed to focus on the kids in this community,” said Rogers. “Prior to that a significant number of students from other neighboring districts were being bused here. If we’re going to be able to keep this school for this community, then that has to be our focus and some people were a little sad about that. Unfortunately for now, at least, we have to focus on the kids here.”

“One of the things that I’m particularly proud of with our school, that makes us very different is that we have an incredibly passionate and committed group of people,” said Dorman, “I don’t ask them to stay late, and I don’t ask them to come early, but they’re always late and early, they’re working on weekends, they’re committed. I’m blessed because they do such a good job, so it makes my job really easy. But everyone here really cares about our kids, so I’m really proud about that.”

“What’s part of our identity as a community agency, not just a community school, is that we’re just about the local community we have here,” noted Dorman. “And you know there’s always been a concern that the school’s going to close, but as long as the kids need us we will be here.”