Oregon’s graduation rate has hit 80%, an all-time high since the state tightened how it tracks the rate more than a decade ago. That represents an increase of 600 students in the Class of 2019 who received a diploma, compared to 2018.

Graduation rates for students of color continue to increase, with almost every race/ethnicity group increasing 2%. Other student groups with a history of struggling to graduate saw rates increase, including a 4-point improvement for migrant students.

ODE credits a dedicated effort to provide graduation specialists for students in migrant education programs across the state.

It’s all one more step toward the state’s goal of getting 100% of students successfully through high school, by 2025.

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Class Of 2025: Follow Students From 1st Grade To Graduation

Oregon leaders have promised to ensure that every child graduates on time by 2025. OPB has followed a group of students from kindergarten as they start their educational journey toward high school. Sixth grade is underway for the Class of 2025. These are some of their stories.

And with an infusion of funds later this year via the state’s new Student Success Act, districts hope to offer students more opportunities and support, where those have been lacking or missing.

The stories of each district show how important such targeted, on-the-ground supports can be for helping students learn.

Officials from nearly every district interviewed for this story mentioned Measure 98 funding as helpful in graduation efforts. Oregon voters approved Measure 98, or the “High School Success Act,” in 2016 to invest in career education, dropout prevention and advanced coursework.

Under the Student Success Act, Measure 98’s focus areas receive more funding.

The Student Success Act also offers districts more targeted support – the kinds of efforts that drove Oregon’s graduation rate to 80%. 

But the story is about more than the numbers.

Below are the stories at six districts across Oregon, listed with their 4-year cohort graduation rate. As the state looks ahead to a 2020-21 school year with more resources, the work at these districts shows that certain efforts – targeting specific student groups, carefully tracking individual students and supporting their mental and life needs beyond academics – are making an impact.

Estacada School District and Sweet Home School District, 66.1% and 84.5%

The Estacada School District saw a 4.3% increase from last year. The district credits career technical education programs that keep students engaged. At the high school level, there is a dedicated focus to track students from the moment they start high school.

But even with last year’s increase, the district is still well below the state average. Officials recognize the work that needs to be done, especially for students with disabilities and those learning English. The district in rural Clackamas County has been moving to better integrate students with disabilities into classroom settings with other students.

“I think we’re on the right track and have brought in additional supports in both of those areas and the gains have really mirrored that,” said Estacada School District communications director Maggie Kelly. “I would like to see a few more years of doing the good, hard work with inclusive practices.”

At another rural district, sustained efforts to help students with particular needs – such as disabilities – appear to be paying off.

Linn County’s Sweet Home School District had one of the largest increases in Oregon, a 13.7% improvement over last year. Superintendent Tom Yahraes said that good news is the result of a years-long effort to get more students to graduation.

The district created a high school “care team” to track student progress and started twice-weekly homework clubs. They’ve added winter and summer school opportunities for students.

“Instead of … a student failing and having to make up an entire class, we work with students and their teachers to target particular standards or curriculum the student needed to redo,” Yahraes said.

Yahreas said it was the district’s overlapping resources that led to graduation rate increases for students experiencing homelessness, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities.

These more dedicated efforts add to other changes, including a longer school week.

Portland Public Schools, 80.5%

Oregon’s largest school district mirrors the state in its overall graduation rate. Since 2013, the district’s graduation rate has increased by 10 percentage points.

The increase is evident for a school like North Portland’s Jefferson High. The school’s graduation rate is up 4 percentage points, with notable gains for black and Latino students, as well as students with disabilities. That increase caps a 22-point improvement over the last six years.

A banner at Jefferson High School on the first day of school on Aug. 28, 2019.

A banner at Jefferson High School on the first day of school on Aug. 28, 2019.

Elizabeth Miller/OPB

PPS Regional Superintendent Joe LaFontaine credits a method Jefferson has used for years – students get separated into small groups and a group of teachers tracks each group’s performance over their high school career, making sure students stay on track.

“They’ve been employing some strategies that we as an entire system have just begun to employ,” said LaFontaine.

Other PPS high school rates increased, but some fell, including Madison High School, where graduation rates fell 4 percentage points. And the same student groups showing increased rates at Jefferson showed decreased rates at Madison.

LaFontaine said packing up for a temporary school and a leadership change could have factored into the decrease. Students at Madison moved out of their Northeast Portland school last year to attend the Marshall High School campus in Southeast, while construction crews overhaul Madison. LaFontaine is hopeful a system like the one at Jefferson will help students at PPS’ other high schools.

One of Portland’s alternative programs, Alliance, saw a large increase in 4-year graduation rates. But two-thirds of its students still don’t graduate in four years.

Bethel School District, 75.5%

In Northwest Eugene, the Bethel School District serves about 5,600 students.

District curriculum director Kee Zublin was excited to see a 9.5% increase for the district’s overall 4-year graduation rate.

As a district, Zublin said there have been changes to teach more effectively – implementing trauma-informed and restorative practices and training teachers to better understand student experiences.

“We think about what their needs might be within a classroom setting,” Zublin said. “If you place their needs central to your planning, you not only help those learners who have been marginalized, but you’re not disadvantaging the rest of the learners in any way.”

When Oregon lawmakers toured the state in 2018 to design the Student Success Act, they repeatedly heard from teachers and students about mental health and traumatic experiences presenting barriers to student learning. Those statements helped make student mental health a priority for the $1 billion annual spending headed to public schools this fall.

Bethel is also one of many districts relying more heavily on data to better reach students in the classroom, with a focus on students from underserved groups, like students experiencing homelessness, or those children from households where English isn’t the primary language.

Coquille School District and Crook County School District, 61.1% and 72.9%

Often, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

That’s the case with the coastal Coquille School  District and central Oregon’s Crook County. Both districts saw their grad rates go down.

Coquille’s 4-year cohort graduation rate is 61.1%, down from last year. Of the district’s two high schools, that number is closer to the 4-year graduation rate for Winter Lakes School, the district’s alternative school.

That school’s graduation rate is 48.1%. But that’s not the number Coquille Superintendent Tim Sweeney pays attention to.

“When you tell me that our Winter Lakes 5-year completer rate is 60%, I’m pretty excited about that number,” said Sweeney.

Coquille Superintendent Tim Sweeney speaking with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown at the Capitol on March 19, 2019.

Coquille Superintendent Tim Sweeney speaking with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown at the Capitol on March 19, 2019.

Elizabeth Miller/OPB

The completer rate includes graduates, plus students who earned a GED or other form of high school diploma. Sweeney said Winter Lakes students tend to come to the school behind on credits. For him, an improving completer rate is a good sign.

“That’s showing that they’re really doing what they set out to do – which is to help students who weren’t going to graduate to finally get their schooling.”

The school serves students from districts around the region – some students with special needs, others who need help beyond academics.

With a new building that just opened this month, Sweeney said the district is improving its supports for students. There are laundry and shower facilities for students who might need those, and the district is trying out a “swing” schedule so the high school can stay open until 8 p.m.

“We’re really working on some of the lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy – where am I going to be fed? Where am I going to be warm?” said Sweeney.

In the Crook County schools, the graduation rate for the district’s students appeared to decrease by 5 percentage points. That drop isn’t reflected in the rate for the district’s high school. The other school listed for the district is Pioneer Secondary Alternative High School.

According to the district, the graduation figure for the alternative high school actually reflects three programs – an in-patient treatment center, a work-education program and the actual Pioneer High School.

Michelle Jonas, principal of Crook County High School and Pioneer, said the numbers attributed to Pioneer don’t reflect the progress students there have made.

“It’s hard for these Pioneer students and staff that are working really hard and getting credits and graduating and walking across that stage when the data just does not reflect that because a majority of the students aren’t Crook County residents,” said Jonas.

Jonas said she’s proud of her district’s progress. And while analyzing and responding to data is a growing part of a school administrator’s job, for Jonas, student success is about looking beyond the numbers.

“Every data point is a person, so we try to focus on knowing the kids, making sure they have mentoring, and just keeping them focused, taking [career-technical education] classes, things that are going to keep them plugged into school and seeing life out of high school and how graduating can help prepare them for their future.”