Oregon schools have achieved their biggest year-over-year improvement in the statewide graduation rate since the current, more accurate measurement system was instituted eight years ago.
The sizable improvement, made public Thursday, was driven entirely by gains among Latino and special education students — students that Oregon high schools have struggled to serve well. Graduation rates for both groups leapt more than 3 percentage points for the class of 2017, building on previous years’ growth.
Every other demographic group tracked by the state showed growth as well, although rates for whites and Asians, among others, improved by just 1 percentage point.
Still, Oregon’s increase in its overall graduation rate, from 75 percent to 77 percent, does not put the state on pace to reach the national average any time soon, let alone match the best states. It also falls short of the state’s own goals, set in 2016, as mileposts on the way to elevating the graduation rate to 90 percent by 2024. That target called for the state’s graduation rate to reach 78 percent for the class of 2017.
State schools chief Colt Gill said of this year’s 2 percentage point gain that he is “excited about that level of progress for Oregon” and aims to help schools and districts maintain the same pace in future years. The narrowing of the gap between Latino and white students and those with and without disabilities that schools accomplished is “super exciting,” he said.
Educators in schools and districts that achieved big gains or high graduation rates cited simple but important techniques that they say underlie their success. Those include paying attention to how many credits each student accumulates, creating school cultures and systems that help adults show students they care about them and creating workable ways for students who fall behind to catch up.
Springfield High, where three-fourths of the students are low-income, posted one of the state’s lowest graduation rates for a comprehensive high school: just 63 percent. Principal José da Silva said he found that result crushing and expects his faculty will too. “I can tell you as the principal of the high school, I took it very hard.”
But he said the school and its partners have already launched new programs he said are paying off, including a new set of employees who track down students who miss to much school and help them to reengage and a homelessness services coordinator who holds office hours at the school three days a week to help students and families affected by the housing crisis find shelter and stability.
Statewide, more than 7,800 students who should have graduated in 2017 left school without a diploma. And, based on recent history, a substantial portion of the 2,900 who returned for a fifth-year of high school will also drop out.
Oregon’s graduation rates for the classes of 2015 and 2016 — 74 percent and 75 percent respectively — both ranked third worst in the nation. The top-ranked states, Iowa and New Jersey, graduate more than 90 percent of their students in four years.
In summer 2016, Gov. Kate Brown hired Gill as the state’s inaugural “education innovation officer” and charged him with one mission: Help raise Oregon’s graduation rate. In November, she tapped him as interim state schools chief and just this month, she made that title permanent.
Gill was rosy about Oregon’s progress this week, saying he thinks Oregon schools have made impressive strides at making instruction more culturally relevant for students of color, tracking students’ individual progress and honoring bilingual students for that trait.
“The gains that we have seen really show that Oregon students, Oregon educators, families and communities really have dedicated themselves to this work,” he said.
Among large high schools, the top graduation rates were recorded at West Linn, Wilsonville and West Albany, all schools that have been lauded for their accomplishments getting students to earn diplomas. The lowest rates for the class of 2017 were record at Springfield, North Salem and Reynolds high schools.
High schools that achieve the top results with Latino students were Putnam High in Milwaukie, South Albany High, McLoughlin High in Milton-Freewater, Century High in Hillsboro, Ontario High and McMinnville High. All managed to graduate at least 88 percent of their Latino students in four years.