At first glance, Oregon Trail Elementary in Casper is not much different from any other school in the Natrona County School District.
Tiny backpacks and coats line hooks in the hallways. Superhero-printed lunch boxes are lumped on carts outside classrooms. Children’s laughter spills out of the gymnasium near the office.
Randall Harris, the school’s principal, walked briskly from room to room on a recent morning, his shoulder-length brown hair flowing behind him.
Students hunched over worksheets or computer keyboards hardly noticed when he poked his head into their classrooms.
For all its apparent normalcy, Oregon Trail Elementary was the only school in Natrona County to exceed expectations on the state’s new rating model, which was piloted this school year. Other schools were labeled as meeting, partially meeting or not meeting expectations, based on their students’ scores on the Performance Assessment for Wyoming Students, or PAWS.
Oregon Trail is a school with low teacher turnover and high parent involvement, Harris said. The school prides itself on a culture of high expectations, where it’s also OK to have fun.
It must be working.
More than 90 percent of Oregon Trail’s students scored proficient or advanced in math on the PAWS test last year. At least 70 percent of the school was proficient in reading, with fourth-graders scoring more than 95 percent proficient and advanced. About 87 percent of fourth graders — the only class to take the science portion of the PAWS — scored at or above proficient in science.
Each morning, kindergartners and first-graders at Oregon Trail play outside for 10 minutes during what teachers call “burn and learn.”
Students may draw shapes with chalk in the fall and spring and examine icicles in the winter, but mostly they’re outside to get their wiggles out.
“They burn off this energy, then they’re ready to learn,” Harris said.
When they return to the classroom, they’re on the teacher’s time, he said.
Students at Oregon Trail make their own goals, like choosing how many problems they want to answer correctly before starting a timed math quiz.
At 343 students, Oregon Trail is one of the district’s largest elementary schools this year. Yet the school is small enough to allow one-on-one tutoring when a student needs it.
“As a staff, we work together,” said Sandy Hartski, a district tutor who has taught and tutored at Oregon Trail since the school opened in 1982. “We share ideas. We communicate with parents.”
Hartski, who will retire at the end of this school year, said success isn’t about using a particular program.
“It’s about taking what works with kids and doing our best,” she said.
Before PAWS testing starts each spring, Oregon Trail students gather for an assembly.
“We tell them, ‘You’ve worked hard all year. This is your chance to shine,’” Harris said. “They want to work hard. They want to win.”
After PAWS testing concluded Friday, some students celebrated by watching a movie. The school’s parent teacher organization is helping organize another assembly to celebrate the end of PAWS testing with snacks, decorations and T-shirts.
Students will do most of the work, Harris said.
Ten-year-old Brian Schaefer pulled an application from a brown envelope near the main office Thursday. His teacher sent him to pick a task to do for the assembly, then write why he will be good at the job.
He chose to be a balloon helper.
“She told me I could pick any job I wanted,” Schaefer said. “I chose it because it sounded fun.”
Harris, who started at Oregon Trail 14 years ago, is the school’s third principal in its more than 30 years of existence, he said.
The longevity trend seems to be true for teachers, too.
Twelve of Oregon Trail’s 21 teachers and tutors have worked there for more than a decade, according to school staff records.
No one leaves except when they move away or retire, said office manager Cyd Askin.
“Even that’s a real low incident,” Askin said.
Teachers at Oregon Trail meet roughly twice a month. Trainings happen off-campus with teachers from nearby Mills Elementary. Harris uses Syfr, a program that teaches educational concepts through Impressionist art, for professional development.
His teachers have freedom to try things, he said.
“Build trust,” Harris said, when asked about his role as a principal. “Be visible. Back up your teachers. Back your kids up.”