Portland Public Schools district headquarters at 550 N. Wheeler Place in Portland, Oregon, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.

Portland Public Schools was among a number of Oregon districts to improve high school graduation rates in 2020, in spite of seniors finishing their final year during a global pandemic.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Oregon’s graduation data for the class of 2020 is out, and the state’s graduation rate has increased for another year. The state’s four-year graduation rate is 82.6%, up more than 10 points from six years ago.

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The state’s five-year completion rate, which includes students who earn GEDs or modified diplomas, was 87.2% in 2020, another all-time high.

The data shows an increase in graduation rates for specific student groups, including African American students — up almost 6%, and Latino students — up 3%.

One of the largest gains was with the state’s homeless students, whose grad rate rose to 60% in 2020, an increase of five percentage points.

“We are seeing gains in nearly every student group, especially our underserved student groups — they’re outpacing the statewide average,” said Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill.

“I’m really proud of this class holding on through that March, April, May and June that were so challenging with COVID-19 just beginning to hit the state of Oregon.”

When COVID-19 shut school buildings down in early March, students were forced into distance learning. And the state changed some rules to accommodate that.

The state required districts to move from letter grades to a pass-incomplete system. Attendance was barely tracked. An essential skills requirement for graduation was suspended.

But Gill doesn’t think any of those changes made getting a diploma any easier, or made an Oregon diploma less valuable.

“These students earned 24 credits during their high school career, they completed in-person, 12 and three-quarters of a year of education, and they were well on their way to graduation and are ready to be successful in universities and colleges, and many of them are,” Gill said.

“They worked hard to get there, I think that educators worked hard to help them get there, and their families supported them.”

Gill said the grading system change did maybe help one group of students — it allowed school staff to focus more on students who weren’t on track to graduate.

“Students who were failing courses, or who were not on track and were credit deficient from previous courses, and I think that is something that could’ve had an impact on graduation outcomes,” Gill said.

However, state officials say one pandemic-related rule change may have contributed to this new data — the state’s dropout rate was the lowest it’s ever been in 2020, at 2.38%. Officials say keeping kids engaged in distance learning and suspending a “10-day drop” rule kept students enrolled. That’s a rule that normally considers students to have withdrawn, or dropped out of school, after they’ve missed more than ten consecutive school days.

Gill said this year’s increase follows the state’s yearslong efforts to get students to graduation. Officials at the local level agree.

Promising progress in Portland

In Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest school district, leaders cite work in both alternative and traditional high schools as a reason for graduation success. The district’s graduation rate is up 3% from a year ago.

At Portland’s Alliance High School, Multiple Pathways to Graduation area senior director Korinna Wolfe pointed to increased career technical education, social emotional wellness and project-based learning.

“What are the projects that students are working on that are hands-on and highly engaging? That has really been able to help students earn credit in multiple content areas, which has also really helped them in their quest to not be as credit deficient and to graduate on time,” Wolfe said.

Alliance HIgh School’s four-year graduation rate reached 61%, up from 35% in 2019.

Elisa Schorr, Portland Public Schools’ senior director for the district’s office of school performance, pointed to Oregon’s Measure 98, a fund to support career and college readiness for high school students created by voters in 2016.

“As we see these graduation rates, we’re also seeing where that work has...given us outcomes that we’ve wanted,” Schorr said.

Schorr also points to staff at the high school level — social workers and others who have helped students mentally and emotionally, as well as student support teams at schools like Madison and Roosevelt High Schools, which both saw graduation rates improve by more than four percentage point from 2019 to 2020.

District leaders also point to partnerships with organizations that help students and their families outside of the classroom.

Throughout COVID-19, those relationships between organizations and families became even more important.

“We all had to pivot, as parents, as school employees, as district leaders, and I think it’s just a real testament to how our students really stayed in the game, and despite the pivot that we had to make in March, continued to stay in the game and got themselves to the finish line,” Wolfe said.

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But not every Portland high school had increases in graduation rates, including North Portland’s Jefferson High, which had an almost 5% decrease compared to last year’s graduation rate.

As for future graduates, the district is trying to keep students engaged even in distance learning.

The district is planning to bring small groups of students into physical classrooms for limited in-person instruction, including elementary students and high school seniors.

And with other students, the district is deciding to instead offer extra support for students virtually, before bringing them into the school building. Schorr mentions Madison High School as an example.

“They realized with their freshman, they had some work to do,” Schorr said. “So they actually created a virtual intervention.”

Other school districts are looking ahead, and reflecting on last year in finding out how to better support 12th graders in the future.

Looking back — and looking ahead in Hillsboro

Unlike last year’s seniors, who ended the year in distance learning, Oregon’s Class of 2021 has spent most of their year attending school from home.

The essential skills requirement for graduation is still suspended. But grades and attendance are back.

For school staff in the Hillsboro School District, looking back on last year means reflecting on the relationships and sense of community that kept students engaged with school.

The district’s overall graduation rate rose a bit in 2020, and similar to Portland Public Schools, there were gains at individual high schools.

What helped students there? School leaders say it could have been the district’s graduation coaches who responded to texts from students who’d stop showing up for class. Or the teachers who printed out assignments, took them to students, and then picked them up again.

Century High School Assistant Principal Julie Kasper looked back on the last year and saw things she wants to bring into the future.

“We’ve been able to reflect on our practices and how we do school,” Kasper said.

“We have been pushed into some brave conversations and some brave changes in education that were overdue.”

Like making sure curriculum, grading, and school schedules are equitable and support students.

In other words: giving students the help they need, and being there to support them.

Glencoe High School assistant principal Joe Painter said he’s taken on a new role at the high school in northwestern Hillsboro.

“I now play a job of ‘student hunter,’” Painter said.

“I feel like so much of what I do now is trying to track down kids, trying to track down kids, trying to connect to families, trying to get families and kids connected back to school.”

Painter and his colleagues said they’re visiting students at work or on their porches to keep connections alive.

But this spring, they’re looking forward to an opportunity to offer something they haven’t been able to do for almost a year: in-person instruction.

The district’s high schools are offering limited in-person instruction for small groups of students who need extra support.

Painter was there for his school’s first session Tuesday night, with a group of 20 seniors. The school held the session during the evening, so students working during the day could attend.

“These are kids who have not liked being in school for four years,” Painter said. “They’re kids that — school has not been the place for them, but I talked to each one of them last night, and every single one was like, ‘Oh Mr. Painter, this is amazing, we are so glad we get to be in school.’”

“Limited In-Person Instruction,” or LIPI, at other Hillsboro high schools is set to begin over the next week. And as students throughout Oregon finish out their high school careers, the things that make senior year special may not look the same as they have in the past. They may not even happen.

Liberty High School Assistant Principal Celia Murray plans to jazz up the typically mundane events of senior year, like picking up graduation materials.

“It’s not going to replace what they’re missing, but we’re going to do the best that we can.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the recent change in the graduation rate in the Hillsboro School District. It improved by 0.83 percentage points. OPB regrets the error.


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