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Oregon Class of 2021 graduation rate falls to 80.6%, as pandemic challenges teachers and students

Graduation at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Ore. on June 26, 2021.
Elizabeth Miller
Graduation at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Ore. on June 26, 2021.

But the Phoenix-Talent School District's extra efforts after the Almeda Fire boosted graduation rates for students made homeless by the fire.

Oregon students are in their third school year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite the disruption in learning, 80.6% of the Class of 2021 graduated on time, in four years.

That’s the second-highest rate since 2014, when the state changed how it reported the data. But it’s a two-percentage-point drop from 2020′s graduate rate, the state’s highest.

Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill said the state “worked hard” to minimize the effects of COVID-19 on the Class of 2020. Those students were preparing to finish their senior year when the coronavirus shut down schools in March 2020.

But the Class of 2021 was in 11th grade in 2020. Their senior year was unlike any other, with a patchwork of schools across the state and country offering distance learning, hybrid, or full in-person classes, often changing throughout the year.

“For most students in Oregon, they got instruction delivered in an entirely new way, that was entirely new to the educators and entirely new to the students — for their entire senior year of school,” Gill said.

“These students, like others in 2020 that were impacted, did overcome some pretty tremendous challenges in accessing their education, and still made it happen alongside educators who worked really hard to support them in pretty unprecedented circumstances,” Gill said.

The state’s three largest school districts saw small changes overall. Portland Public Schools’ graduation rate rose slightly, but most student groups saw small declines. Salem-Keizer and Beaverton’s graduation rates declined slightly overall and for most student groups.

In a press release announcing Salem-Keizer’s graduation rates, assistant superintendent Iton Udonsenata said the Class of 2021 is the first class to surpass the statewide graduation rate since the 2013-2014 school year.

“It goes without saying that students are greatly impacted by the disruption to learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Udonsenata said.

“The ability for the Class of 2021 to not only have a graduation rate that is stable compared to the previous year, but also surpasses the statewide average is a true representation of the resiliency and dedication of students, staff and their families during this time.”

Jon Franco, Beaverton’s executive administrator for high schools, said unlike 2020, when students received pass or incomplete grades based on students’ progress when schools first closed, the variables changed for last year’s seniors.

“Even though we started out CDL and we transitioned to hybrid, our teachers were grading, and our kids, and our schools had to connect with kids, with the same learning targets, it was basically a regular school year,” Franco said.

In a continuation of 2020, essential skills requirements were still suspended for the Class of 2021.

Franco notes BSD’s 5-year graduation rate is the highest it’s ever been, at 90.48%. The state’s 5-year graduation rate also increased to 84.49%.

Franco, along with officials at PPS and Salem-Keizer note improvements in graduation rates for students with disabilities.

ODE also released dropout rates for the 2020-2021 school year, but state officials say the numbers aren’t comparable to previous years. That’s because last school year, the state suspended a rule that removes students from attendance rolls if they miss school for 10 days.

“In an ordinary year, if a student stops attending for 10 days in a row, no attendance for 10 straight days, that student needs to be dropped from active roll,” said ODE Director of Accountability and Reporting Jon Wiens.

“Last year, the 10-day drop rule was suspended, which means if a student stopped attending school, and the district did not have information on what happened to the student, they retained the student on their rolls and continued to enroll them throughout the school year,” Wiens said.

Oregon’s dropout rate last year was 1.81%, compared to 2.38% the previous year. For 2019, the last pre-pandemic school year, the rate was 3.26%.

Statewide, graduation rates in every student group declined from last year, including for historically underserved groups such as Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students and students experiencing homelessness.

“While we see these challenges reflected in graduation rates for some of our student groups, we also applaud our educators and program advocates who went to extraordinary lengths to keep students engaged in learning throughout the whole school year,” said Salem-Keizer superintendent Christy Perry in the release.

But in some districts, graduation rate data increased for students in those groups.

Phoenix-Talent staff build relationships to keep houseless students engaged

The Alameda Fire started on the first day of school 2020, in the Phoenix-Talent School District in Southern Oregon.

The district and its community, like everyone else, was already six months into the COVID-19 pandemic. But the fire made things even harder for the 2,300-student district.

“That added this extra huge barrier,” said Tiffanie Lambert, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for Phoenix-Talent schools.

The fire left students and their families displaced, at evacuation sites, motels and an RV park.

First, school staff checked on the health and safety of students. Then, Lambert said, they got to work, setting up “satellite” sites around the community.

Some staff members had lost their homes too.

“We had classes being taught from RVs, and motel rooms,” Lambert said. “Our culinary arts teacher was teaching culinary out of an RV.”

From providing food to making sure students were connected with Chromebooks or hotspots, Phoenix-Talent staff relied on their trusting relationships with families to help keep students on track.

“We’re a size district that we’re big enough to have resources, but not too big that we don’t know each other,” Lambert said.

Statewide, the graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness dropped to 55.4%, its 2018-2019 level and five percentage points below the 2019-2020 rate.

For the Phoenix-Talent School District, the graduation rate for homeless students was 90.41% for the Class of 2021, an improvement of nearly 20 percentage points. Out of a cohort of 73 students, 66 graduated.

At Phoenix High School, it was 93.65%, an increase of 12 percentage points from the prior year. Out of a 63-student cohort, 59 of them earned diplomas.

“We are really proud of our staff and our students and their families for being so resilient,” Lambert said. “They went through so much, with the pandemic and the Alameda fire, so graduation was such a huge experience. The whole community was determined to do whatever it took to have those students graduate from high school.”

The district received special permission to open sooner in-person than other districts and chartered buses to help transport students. They started a hotline for families to use if they needed help. Lambert and Barry said nonprofits, other school districts, and faith-based groups helped out with students, families and staff.

Lambert and Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Brent Barry said strong relationships helped bond the district with the families it served.

“That connectivity, that trust,” Barry said. “The Alameda Fire really disproportionately affected families of poverty, and the trust was not there - we have some that did not trust governmental agencies besides a school.”

For districts hoping to better serve students in this group, Barry advises “not expecting families that are in crisis, literally in crisis when you’re experiencing houselessness, to conform to a traditional school system.”

So Barry and his team looked to adapt the system.

“How can we break down barriers and problem-solve to help support them to access their education?”

Lambert said school staff should be making decisions with families, not for them.

“Being strategic and intentional about asking questions, and making sure the families feel safe and respected,” Lambert said. “It’s really difficult.”

In some ways, systems worked against a district facing problems brought on by a disaster like the Almeda Fire. The district lost funding as it lost students who left the area after the fire, but Lambert and Barry say they still have services to provide to families, including those who may return. District officials hope to regain the funding through potential legislation in next month’s short session.

But no matter the funding, Lambert said staff will continue to be persistent in getting students to graduation.

“It’s home visits, it’s calling, it’s really making sure they don’t make a decision that they’ll regret,” Lambert said. “We understand that a lot of our students need to work to support their families this time, but kids need a high school diploma. It’s our job to convince them.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Elizabeth Miller is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Elizabeth is an Ohio native and a graduate of Baldwin Wallace University.