Oregon’s high school graduation rate has to get better — but how?
When classes start each day at Clackamas High School, teachers are more apt to crack a joke or tell their students a personal anecdote than call the roll right away.
This friendly warm-up aims to boost attendance rates, and it’s working.
“I think [the teacher warm-up] brings a little bit of laughter into the class and it brings everybody together,” says Danny Luong, 18, a senior at Clackamas High. As a sophomore, Luong struggled with some problems at home that affected his attendance. Today, he’s a regular face in his classes and is on-track to graduate with the class of 2016.
“We know the only reason some kids come to a class is because they like the teacher,” says Christine Garcia, Clackamas High School’s principal. Her school trumpets a 95 percent attendance rate this year, up from 91 percent just five years ago.
“Teachers are meant to make a personal connection with the kids in the first five to ten minutes of class. That is a key piece,” she says.
Such small efforts by educators to boost attendance or make students of all stripes — college-bound or otherwise – find value in school is part of a much larger effort to improve Oregon’s dismal graduation rates, which consistently rank as among the nation’s worst.
From an outsider’s perspective, Oregon seems an idyllic place. Oregonians value beautiful, sustainable communities; we’re generally welcoming, and place a high premium on independence and creativity. But when it comes to graduating our children from high school, the state falls short of the fairy tale.
In 2013, Oregon ranked the lowest in the nation at 68.7 percent in a side-by-side comparison of high school graduation rates. Only the District of Columbia sank lower. A slight uptick in 2014 to 72 percent seemed promising — until you realize that the improvement came mostly due to a change in how Oregon reports graduation rates.
“It’s important to note that national rankings are not perfect apples to apples comparisons,” says Salam Noor, Oregon’s deputy superintendent of public instruction. “Oregon’s calculations are conservative relative to many states and this has an impact on how we stack up in national comparisons,” he added.
Today, Oregon educators and policy makers are tackling what they suspect are the root causes of our low graduation rate: high absenteeism rates, the quality of early education and at risk students who can fall through the cracks.
Clackamas High School’s attention to truancy is keeping more students in class and headed toward the cap and gown ceremony. In 2014, the school boasted a 91 percent on-time graduation rate.
“I think a lot of the success here comes from everyone working as a team — from campus monitors to teachers to school counselors — helping to identify those kids who are at risk,” says Ray Byzewski, dean of students at Clackamas High School.
Danny Luong credits his school counselor with helping him through a particularly rough patch. “She was really important,” he says of her support for his choice to take a few months away from school to sort through family problems. He returned to school more focused and ready to work toward graduation.
“Now, she asks me what I plan on doing after graduation and she helps me find the right classes for me,” Luong says of the counselor who has closely followed his progress through high school.
Byzewski and Principal Garcia also credit a national program that a handful of other Oregon schools use: Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID).
A global nonprofit organization, AVID bolsters academically mediocre students — those receiving B, C and D grades — in hopes they will enroll in college. The program trains educators to teach students organizational skills, learning strategies and motivation to make a plan for themselves beyond high school.
AVID also exposes at-risk students to important “soft skills” such as efficient note taking or being able to self-advocate, necessary skills to have whether college is the next step for these kids, or not.
“Improving graduation rates has never been an easy fix,” said Noor. “We have a number of initiatives designed to boost graduation rates, but seeing real systemic change takes time.”
Noor is a vocal advocate for full-day kindergarten programs, a newly expanded statewide effort that includes nearly every kindergartner in Oregon.
The expansion of kindergarten from a partial day to a full day of learning is controversial in part due to the huge price tag — nearly $110 million per year. But Oregon educators have long sought this massive infusion to early education offerings, especially in light of our state’s disappointingly low rate of third graders who read at grade level: 66 percent in the 2013/2014 school year.
“We know that if we can reduce gaps early and give all students a strong start, they are more likely to see success in the later grades,” says Noor.
At least one national study confirms Noor’s assertions.
According to a 2012 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 35 percent of children in the United States who lived in poverty and were not reading proficiently at the third grade level failed to graduate high school on time.
Though full-day kindergarten has been in her school for only a few months, Cathy Lehmann, principal at Lot Whitcomb Elementary School in Milwaukie can already see the advantages.
“Their readiness scores are going up,” she says of her kindergarteners, which means these youngsters are getting the hang of how to learn, what the structure of a school day looks and feels like, when to listen to their teachers and when to socialize. The payoff for these students will come in first grade when they begin the year taking on more academic challenges instead of learning the basics of navigating school.
“The full-day kindergarten gives my students more time with books they may not otherwise have access to, and they get free breakfast, lunch and snack, too, which can improve their ability to learn,” says Lehmann. Roughly 90 percent of Lot Whitcomb’s students live below the national poverty rate, qualifying its nearly 500 students for free meals.
For Lot-Whitcomb parent Bren Caspell, full-day kindergarten has shown her just how important the extra time in the classroom can be. Caspell has two daughters in the school, and her oldest daughter attended half-day kindergarten. By contrast, Caspell’s youngest is currently in a full-day kindergarten class.
“I feel like the kids in the half-day kindergarten were not given the time they needed to learn; they were rushed,” she says.
“The (academic) expectations were the same, but the class time was half of what my full-day kindergarten daughter is getting,” she said.
Caspell’s youngest daughter has time to complete projects, go out to recess, and then come back to her work without getting interrupted to go home.
“She’s learning more numbers and sound recognition for her letters,” says Caspell. “She’s definitely further ahead [than her older sibling was at the same place in her half-day kindergarten year.]”
And Caspell also sees how her youngest daughter is benefitting socially from the full-day kindergarten, too.
“I feel like kindergarten is an important time when children can learn proper behavior: keeping your hands to yourself, taking turns, sharing friends, how to navigate social quarrels — they learn all of that in full-day kindergarten,” she says.
Another challenge for educators: Finding ways to rally a diverse student population toward the common goal of a high-quality education. When measured in eighth grade, the average Latino, black and Native American student in Oregon lags by more than a full academic year behind her white peers in reading and math, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“We have 26 spoken languages here,” says Garcia. Her student body is 66 percent Caucasian, 18 percent Asian and 15 percent Hispanic. For the last three years, she and her staffers have folded the idea of equity into the curriculum and extracurricular activities, including daylong workshops focusing on empathy and honest interactions in the classroom.
“We are predominantly a white school, and … it’s hard for a student of color,” she says. “How can we work to understand that experience?”
Noor agrees that long-term commitment to reaching a diverse student body is necessary to improving sagging graduation rates.
“As a state, we have made a commitment to educational equity and closing the gaps that currently exist between students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, students experiencing poverty and their peers,” says Noor. “However, there is still a great deal of work to do in this area.”
Garcia predicts Clackamas High School will be working on issues of equity for at least another decade.
“I think we’re going to reach that place where we combine the passion we feel for our state and nature and earth with how we educate our kids,” says Garcia. “We are headed in that direction, but education is one of the slowest things to change.”