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Some Reasons Why Oregon’s High School Graduation Rate Is So Low

Jacob Lewin/KLCC
Somali students at David Douglas High School in Portland

It doesn't seem to make sense. 

Oregon students get average scores on national tests, but rank near the bottom in high school graduation rates.  Just over one in four Oregon high school students doesn't graduate in four years. 

But there are a number of reasons that can help explain the discrepancy ...

"Zahara Sheik-Wali.....Siyat Hefow...."

It's roll call at the Somali club after school at Oregon's biggest high school, David Douglas in outer southeast Portland.  David Douglas students and their parents speak a total of more than 40 languages. Three-quarters of the kids are economically disadvantaged. Yet the school has a graduation rate slightly higher than the state average and is improving rapidly.  Principal John Bier says there's been a big effort to curb absenteeism:

"We have five or six Americorps volunteers that do nothing but call students. We do home visits."

When three o'clock comes along, many of the three-thousand students don't go home, but head for the tutoring center of after school language or enrichment classes.  Some of their parents join them for classes and there's a major federally-funded summer program:

"As much as you can connect kids back somehow to the school, not just within classes, sort of widens that net with an adult that they know, the better off you are with students when they get back into the classroom."

But when students come to Oregon as teenagers from, say Somalia, with no English and no formal education, it may not be reasonable to expect them to graduate in four years. Social service worker Selena Ponce:

"We had a sixteen-year-old student from Somalia who did not know what a pencil was.  She did not have the dexterity or the ability to then write."

Even the best-prepared students are facing more pressure than ever, according to mental health workers. Corvallis High has improved its graduation rate from 70 to 90 percent over five years. Taking note of a cluster of suicides--six students in Corvallis and nearby Philomath and Albany have taken their lives since 2010--Corvallis put two mental health counselors at the school in a partnership with Trillium Family Services. Counselor Diana Boro-Boswell says some of the pressure comes from shunning and shaming on social media:

"Somebody used the acronym K-Y-S and I was like what? What is that? And they said kill yourself. This is something that students will say to each other on social media. K-Y-S. Shut up. We don't want to hear from you.  That's something that I never could have imagined hearing from another student when I was in high school."

But Boro-Boswell says that's not the main mental health problem at Corvallis High. Bigger is students dealing with the trauma of homelessness, foster care, and parents with addictions.  Boro-Boswell says problems that can lead kids to drop out or to the  brink of dropping out cut across income lines:

"Corvallis is an incredibly high-achieving town.  It's one of the most educated cities in the United States. So if you look at students who feel like it's either perfection or they shouldn't bother, then that adds an incredible amount of pressure to them."

"Navigating Corvallis's mental health system is rough when psychiatrists have six-month waiting lists."

Lily Shellhammer graduated two years ago, but after two years of severe depression during which she missed school for weeks at a time:

"Both my parents are very successful and are in academics. There was a lot of pressure to continue on that path and get into the best college and do phenomenally well in all my classes.  So when I was wasn't doing quite as well because of biological changes, then that took more of a toll because I felt that my self-worth had gone down because I was no longer able to perform at the level that was expected of my peers, and my parents, and some teachers."

A Pew study shows 55 percent of parents fear their kids are or will be struggling with anxiety and depression.  In 2008, Oregon education officials decided to phase in tougher graduation requirements, such as three year of math, including Algebra 2 or equivalent:

"We have high standards and I think that's a good thing."

Hanna Vaandering leads the Oregon Education Association, the state's largest public education employees' union:

"We have to look at how we support the students in order to reach those standards, not just raise the standards and pretend that we're going to be able to get there."

Relatively tough graduation requirements are one reason Oregon is near the bottom in the national graduation rate rankings. California, for example, offers a college prep and a non-college prep diploma and that's why it beats Oregon. Vaandering says another reason is the higher than average level of child hunger:

"This is huge in Oregon. We have students who ware not completing school because they're going to work. Because their families can't afford to put food on the table or a roof over their heads."

It all leads to a graduation rate ranking of 47th nationally. State education officials and Governor Kate Brown are now making an improvement in the graduation rate a top priority.

Copyright 2016 KLCC-FM