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Graduation rates up in East Multnomah County schools

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Four of the five comprehensive high schools in East Multnomah County improved their graduation rates in 2015, while besting the state average rate, according to new Oregon Department of Education statistics.

Statewide, the graduation rate edged up a bit to 74 percent in 2015 from the 72 percent of the students who received diplomas in four years in 2014. Oregon is among the worst 10 percent of states in its graduation rates and has strived to improve it.

Students drop out of school for a complex mix of reasons, and shepherding some to graduation is difficult. All the East Multnomah County schools have multiple measures to try and get students to this important milestone. In fact, school districts often say their dropout prevention programs actually start in elementary school.

Centennial High School graduated 83.2 percent of its senior class in four years, up from 81.9 percent in 2014. Centennial’s interim Principal Mairi Scott-Aguirre said the school has “really been working on attendance this year.”

Poor attendance often leads students to dropout. Grants have funded a full-time staff member to work on getting students with attendance problems to school.

Centennial is also working with students who are failing classes and need to retake them, especially in math. For example, if a student fails the first semester of geometry, he or she can repeat that failed semester immediately, a practice called credit recovery. Centennial also offers online and after-school credit recovery opportunities.

“Our counselors are really good at chasing kids down and getting them caught up,” Scott-Aguirre said.

Sam Barlow High School graduated 84.4 percent in 2015, up from 82.6 percent the year earlier. Making sure students are headed toward graduation “is everybody’s job,” at Barlow, said Principal Bruce Schmidt.

“We’re being very proactive,” Schmidt said. For example, a group of counselors, administrators and staff meet weekly to identify students in the “red zone” who need services. Schmidt said administrators try to connect them to those services.

Gresham High School, the only school that showed a decline from the year earlier, graduated 76.6 percent of the class of 2015, down from 78.6 percent in 2014. Assistant Principal Danelle Heikkila explained the decline is likely based on the fact that a different group of students is being measured.

“I consider this a holding ground,” she said, but notes the school’s graduation rate increased 16 percentage points in the last six years.

Heikkila ticked off a long list of ways Gresham High is working to boost graduation rates. They are increasing support for students coming up to the high school from middle school, a transition than can often trip up students. Gresham offers a summer program for 40 of these transitioning students who are behind academically, among many other programs.

Reynolds High School, the only school that lagged the state average, graduated 64.6 percent, an increase from 63.2 percent in 2014.

“We’re making slow but steady progress,” said Superintendent Linda Florence. She pointed out that the high school has had an 11 point increase in kids graduating in five years over the past three years, and they expect to see another increase in the 2016 graduating class.

Reynolds High School also has multiple programs to successfully usher students to graduation. Administrators carefully track attendance and work to make sure students show up for class.

“We are working on non-exclusion for discipline problems,” she said, not punishing bad behavior by keeping students out of school.

Reynolds has multiple options for credit recovery when students fail a class. They have an “access class” that teaches some ninth graders how to be successful in school. Reynolds also has a well-attended peer-to-peer, after-school tutoring program.

“It’s so neat. The kids like it. It isn’t a negative,” Florence said.

Corbett High School had one of the best performances in the state, graduating 95.2 percent of its class, a whopping 10 points better than the year earlier.

Graduating from high school almost always means a better life. Among recent dropouts in the United States, 16 percent are unemployed and 32 percent live below the poverty line. Those who do have jobs earn an average of only $12.75 per hour, a 2012 study by the Brookings Institute said.

Dropping out generally is not prompted by one catastrophic event, but rather a long, slow process of disengagement from school, often starting in elementary school. It is usually marked by a combination of high and chronic absenteeism and low academic performance, studies show.

Statewide, the increase to 74 percent graduation rate, “moves us closer to our goal of having every Oregon student complete high school with a plan,” Gov. Kate Brown said in an announcement. “We have work to do as a state to reach that goal, and I am committed to making sure our education system delivers better outcomes.”

As part of the state’s mission to improve graduation rates, ODE has established a Graduation Advisory Committee comprising key external partners to weigh in on the state’s graduation plans. This advisory group — which includes representation from school districts, key education organizations, the business community, higher education, leaders representing communities of color, parent groups, and policy leaders — met earlier in January to review Oregon and national graduation data, discuss barriers to improving the graduation rate, explore promising practices and share recommendations and strategies.