If you read the daily headlines about education in Oregon and across the country, it looks grim.
Teachers and school administrators are struggling to settle contracts in Oregon’s two largest districts.
Standardized test scores are far below where they need to be for students to be considered on track for college and the workforce.
Politics and culture wars have encroached into classrooms like never before.
Those controversies and conflicts are having an effect inside many public schools. But the primary challenge for educators remains the same: how to overcome barriers to help children learn, year after year, and get ready for adulthood. That central journey has been OPB’s focus for more than a decade, since we set out to follow 28 kids in the Class of 2025.
The project began as a reaction to the state of Oregon’s ambitious goal that starting with the Class of 2025, all students would earn diplomas or the equivalent. Conventional wisdom at the time — and since — has been that reaching a 100% graduation rate is impossible.
“What keeps kids from graduating?” David Douglas High School theater teacher Michael Givler asks himself in OPB’s new documentary chronicling the Class of 2025′s sophomore year.
“Life keeps kids from graduating.”
The students we are tracking in the Class of 2025 all started together at Earl Boyles Elementary School in the David Douglas School District in Southeast Portland. Last spring, they were sophomores, less than two years from when they’re expected to graduate.
For some of them, “life” has indeed had an influence on their path toward graduation. High school educators notice that most clearly when students struggle with attendance.
“It’s hard to graduate if you’re not here,” quipped David Douglas High School counselor Kagan Young.
Schools work hard to give students plenty of reasons to come to school, including offering sports and extracurricular clubs, hiring teachers and staff they can connect to, and hosting social events like dances and concerts. But challenges at home or conflicts at school can get in the way, despite educators’ best efforts and students’ intentions.
Some students we followed fell behind because they suffered health problems or serious family illnesses.
Some struggled because of overwhelming emotional difficulties, like the end of a romantic relationship or the loss of a beloved relative.
“I haven’t been showing up in school and stuff,” Class of 2025 student Anais said, referring to a broken relationship she experienced last school year. “And honestly I really do regret it. Because I feel like it shouldn’t have that impact on me … but it did.”
Some students felt less inclined to show up at school for other reasons — say conflicts with classmates or the unexpected departure of a special teacher.
“I think sophomore year, from beginning to end, is kind of like a whole rollercoaster for me,” Class of 2025 student Ava said as she approached the end of 10th grade.
For teenagers coming out of a pandemic and adjusting to expectations that they exhibit more independence, sophomore year was challenging.
“They’re not getting their hands held as much,” teacher Steven Andreen said in the latest OPB documentary. “We’re trying to put more responsibility on their plate.”
“Right now I’m on track to graduate, so that’s good yeah,” Class of 2025 student Osvaldo said at the end of sophomore year.
What about the next two years?
“I’m scared,” he said. “But I’m ready.”
Elizabeth Miller and Kate McMahon contributed to this story.