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Oregon’s graduation rate went up last year. Here’s some of what's working

FILE: A woman and child walk past a North Salem High School in Salem, Ore., March 31, 2020, which like all schools in Oregon was closed at that time because of the coronavirus. In the Salem-Keizer School District, 81.5% of migrant students in the Class of 2022 graduated. That’s a more than 10-point increase from the previous year.
Andrew Selsky
FILE: A woman and child walk past a North Salem High School in Salem, Ore., March 31, 2020, which like all schools in Oregon was closed at that time because of the coronavirus. In the Salem-Keizer School District, 81.5% of migrant students in the Class of 2022 graduated. That’s a more than 10-point increase from the previous year.

Targeted efforts in Portland, Salem and the central coast led to substantial gains for students who have historically graduated at lower rates.

As the graduation rate for all Oregon students increased for the Class of 2022, it grew even more in some places among specific student groups.

In some districts, the improvement outpaced the state. OPB spoke with officials in Salem-Keizer, Lincoln County and Portland Public Schools about efforts to improve graduation for students who are Black, Native American, experiencing homelessness, or part of a migrant education program.

Personal connections build lasting progress in Salem-Keizer

In the Salem-Keizer School District, 81.5% of migrant students in the Class of 2022 graduated. That’s a more than 10-point increase from the previous year, and slightly higher than the state average of 81.4%.

Griselda Hernandez is the administrative assistant for the district’s Migrant Education program. She was a migrant student who started working as a student worker in the district’s migrant education preschool program. As a student, she was a part of the program to support migrant students, but she did not feel connected to it.

“I didn’t get much contact with my own migrant specialist,” Hernandez said. “So when I started working with the migrant program, I wanted to make sure that every single student was met. We need to talk to and reach out to every single migrant student to make sure that all their needs are met.”

Salem-Keizer’s migrant education program serves about 1,600 students with 20 staff members, the largest in the state. When it comes to seniors, the district offers support through dedicated staff, including a graduation coach.

Hernandez said personal connections with adults, such as coaches, keep students engaged in school. She mentioned a student this school year — a “very discouraged senior” who was not attending school. Her graduation coach encouraged her to go on a field trip to a college campus and attend a few workshops.

“Ever since that first field trip and that push, her attendance has increased,” Hernandez said.

The district has used community resource specialists to increase support for the district’s Pacific Islander and Black students. Like the staff in those positions, the district’s staff dedicated to migrant students work to make sure students remain on target for graduation, even if they have to leave the district.

“These are students who might be at risk because of our mobility, where migrant families are in and out of our district because of our work,” Hernandez said. “We all make sure they keep on target to graduate by doing those extra resources that we might need — before or after school tutoring.”

Hernandez also highlighted the migrant education summer program that serves students across all grades, including students traveling through Oregon to California, Idaho and Washington.

“We make sure that they attend summer school so they don’t fall behind when they get back to their own district,” she said.

When students end up in Salem-Keizer schools from another country, Hernandez said it’s now easier for their credits to transfer from their previous schools in Mexico or countries in Central America and South America.

“So students don’t get discouraged, so they don’t have to be repeating a lot of information that they’ve already done in their home countries,” Hernandez said.

This is Hernandez’s 24th year in the district. She said it’s been amazing to watch the progress and increased support for migrant students and their families. In the future, she wants to better highlight and acknowledge students’ achievement in graduating from high school.

Personal connections build lasting progress in Salem-Keizer

For the last couple of years, not only have officials in the Lincoln County School District been sharing information with the Siletz tribe — they’ve been asking for advice.

“It’s really just true collaboration with the education department of the Siletz tribe,” said Majalise Tolan, Lincoln County’s Director of Secondary Education and a candidate for superintendent.

“... It is seeking their input and their advice, and hearing from them and what they’re hearing from families that we can do to better support.”

The district learned tribal members were interested in career technical education. Families wanted tutoring and more resources, like Chromebooks and better access to the internet. They wanted more help in the transition from middle to high school.

The district has also been working on building cultural awareness between the Siletz tribe and staff, through annual professional development days related to Senate Bill 13, a law passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2017 that requires a curriculum statewide on Tribal History/Shared History.

“They’re not watching a slideshow, we’re not showing a film, but we’re learning from people who live here, and from families that we support,” Tolan said.

Sessions have focused on the history of the land and the Siletz tribe, as well as the history of tribal boarding schools.

“They were a totally underserved population in our school district,” Tolan said.

There are also now three full-time staff members supporting Native American students in Lincoln County, funded through the state’s Measure 98 High School Success and Student Investment Account programs, as well as from federal Title VI funds for Indian Education.

Like Salem-Keizer, graduation coaches have helped students from freshman year through graduation.

Lincoln County saw increased improvement for its small cohort of American Indian/Alaska Native students in the Class of 2022, with 80% of students graduating, compared to the statewide rate of 68.9%.

Tolan said the district is creating more opportunities for Native students to build connections with one another, while also involving general education staff so they can build better relationships with students.

Lincoln County also saw an improvement in students experiencing homelessness, with 76.9% of those students in the Class of 2022 graduating, compared to the statewide rate of 58.6%.

Tolan credited the school district’s efforts to identify students experiencing homelessness, but she also pointed out broader efforts countywide.

“I don’t think we would have the results that we have for our families and students with the graduation rate if we didn’t have so much support at the county outside of the school system,” Tolan said.

In Portland, community partnerships help improve outcomes for Black students

Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest school district, also serves the largest number of Black students in the state. District officials have made a point of focusing on improving academic outcomes for Black students, as well as Native students.

For the Class of 2022, 79.4% of Black seniors in the district graduated from high school in four years, an increase of four percentage points from the previous year. The statewide graduation rate for Black students increased for the Class of 2022, though it’s slightly below Portland’s mark, at 73.7%.

The district noted graduation rates for its small cohort of Native students increased by 11.5 percentage points.

Kimberly Armstrong is the district’s Chief Academic Officer.

To explain the graduation rate improvement for these groups, Armstrong points back four years to the district’s Ninth Grade Academies as well as freshmen success teams. She says those efforts helped support students at the beginning of their high school careers.

When it came to helping Black and Native students, she credited culturally- specific community organizations that contract with PPS and offer support for students both inside and outside the classroom.

“When I think of the work that they’re doing to come alongside and partner with us, to provide that wrap-around service is what’s making the difference,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said the district is spending federal funds on summer learning and intervention programs to help get students to graduation.

At the same time, she said holding students to high expectations and offering advanced coursework contributed to improved graduation rates.

She’s thinking about how Portland students fare even after high school graduations.

“It’s not about just getting a paper and being done, hitting the graduation rate number and saying, ‘great, you’ve completed and you’re good,’” Armstrong said.

“I want to know that our students sitting in those college classrooms are just as prepared as students down the street or across the state, that there isn’t any gap in learning or understanding — that they can analyze and debate and critique with the best of them.”

Copyright 2023 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.