Degrees of success: Gresham-area graduation rates hover above state average
Among the big, comprehensive high schools in East Multnomah County, Reynolds High School produced the largest improvement in graduation rates in the last school year, and all the schools, save Reynolds, graduated students at higher rates than the state average.
Frank Caropelo, assistant superintendent for the Reynolds School District, said the improvement — reflected in statistics released by the Oregon Department of Education — "isn't doing any one thing, its doing lots of little things better."
Statewide, one in four Oregon high school students do not graduate in four years. Oregon has one of the worst graduation rates in the country. In the 2014-15 school year, Oregon's was third worst in the nation, trailing only Nevada and New Mexico. Still, Oregon's graduation rate edged up in 2015-16 to 74.83 percent, from 73.82 percent in the 2014-15 school year. Nationally the graduation rate is 83.2
Boosting high school graduation levels is a statewide priority. "I remain committed to improving Oregon's graduation rates, and will prioritize investments in the upcoming legislative session that empower communities and educators to improve graduation rates," Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement accompanying the statistics.
How they fared
Despite Reynolds' improvement, it is still the only area high school that lags behind the rest of the state. Some 67.2 percent of Reynolds students got a degree in the 2015-16 school year, up from the 64.6 percent in 2014-15. At Corbett, 94.7 percent of students received their diplomas, down a hair from the 95.2 percent rate in the 2014-15 school year.
Centennial High School also graduated students at far higher rates than the state average. About 82.9 percent of Centennial students grabbed that sheepskin in the 2015-16 school, down slightly from the 83.2 percent rate a year earlier.
At Barlow High School, 79.8 percent received a diploma, down from the 84.4 percent a year earlier, but still higher than the state average. Gresham High School improved its rate to 78.4 percent from the 76.6 percent a year before, also besting the state as a whole.
While Caropelo is encouraged by the gains Reynolds High School has made, "no one here is satisfied with the progress we've made so far," he said, adding there is "no one magic bullet," but a many-faceted approach will guide more students to diplomas.
The school offers opportunities for students who have failed classes to make them up in the summer. There are more than 30 community partners working with Reynolds High School students to help them achieve.
Caropelo also credits the hard work of Reynolds teachers across the district for the gains in graduation rates.
"It is the positive, supportive relationship that teachers build with students that sets the lasting foundation upon which success is built," he said. "Working on graduation begins in kindergarten."
Reynolds also pays close attention to supporting children in middle school, "so they are set up for success in high school," he said. "We've had growth over time and that is a durable sort of growth that is not dependent on one program. We want them graduating with a plan. That's the next step."
Gresham-Barlow School District Deputy Superintendent James Hiu noted that the district's high schools have improved their graduation rate by 16 percentage points over the past five years, while acknowledging that "we still have work to do."
The improving rates can be traced to "the committed group of staff members who meet the students where they are," Hiu said, noting that at Gresham High School, the teachers have the most diverse student population in the district and have been successful at increasing graduation rates.
Hiu added that the SUN after-school program "provides additional resources and supports kids in looking at life after Gresham High School."
Barlow is becoming more diverse every year, which could account for part of the slide in Barlow's graduation number last year, Hiu said.
The district and Barlow staff are working to better meet the challenges of a more diverse student body that will bring the graduation rate back up.
Both Gresham and Barlow high schools and their feeder middle schools offer AVID, a class that is a college preparatory program for students that might not consider themselves college material. AVID teaches skills such as note taking and time management but also provides tutoring and other support.
Hiu said with AVID a lot of students earn skills and strategies that "help them engage in their learning." Statistics show AVID students graduate at higher rates than their peers.
Corbett High School routinely has one of the highest graduation rates in the state.
That can be traced in part to the unusual makeup of the district. Almost half, 48 percent, of Corbett's 1,200 students come from out of the district, indicating their families are motivated enough to choose another district and transport their children there.
That kind of parental support correlates highly with student achievement and graduation rates.
Corbett High School Principal Phil Pearson said the relatively small size of the school also helps, allowing more individual attention to each student.
A team of teachers track ninth graders' progress weekly, because if students are already falling behind as freshmen, statistics show they are less likely to graduate.
Corbett also provides "multiple paths to getting passing grades," Pearson said. "We give kids a chance to go back and deal with non-passing grades from past terms," including an online "credit recovery" option.
Corbett has a four-day school week, and if students are struggling, they can come in on Fridays for extra help.
Corbett's sky-high graduation rate isn't sufficient, Pearson said.
"Ninety-five percent means that five kids, whose names we know, didn't graduate on time. That's really not good enough. We're not done yet."
Corbett has a much smaller gap to close than other schools, but getting every high school student across that stage in June is every school's ultimate goal.
"One hundred percent is our standing aspiration," Pearson said, "our operational objective."
Career education rocks
One group of students with the highest graduation rates may surprise some. Sure, the honor society crowd is at the top of the likely-to-graduate list, but students who take even one career or technical education class graduate at rates much higher than average.
The Oregon Department of Education reported that students who had taken one or more CTE class had an 85.4 percent graduation rate, compared with a 74.8 percent rate for the state as a whole.
Career students may have an occupation goal in mind, such as machinist or a health-care technician and are motivated to excel, graduate and get going on their professions.
"There is nothing like the power of choice," said Carol Egan, director of Gresham's Center for Advanced Learning, which specializes in CTE classes. "When a student has an option that speaks to their passion or their curiosity, and they take that option? They then own their choice."
CTE, or electives classes, are often taught by those from various fields. Many instructors began in the professional world and later became teachers.
James Hiu, deputy superintendent at Gresham-Barlow School District, observed that some of the career and technical classes are taken at Mt. Hood Community College or other colleges, giving students college credits and helping their motivation.
Local high schools offer a variety of CTE classes. Reynolds High School students can study automotive technology and culinary arts, among other disciplines. Barlow students can study child development or take a variety of business courses.
CAL offers intensive career education in five areas:
• computer information systems
• mechanical engineering
• digital media and design
• health sciences, and
It is a public charter school open to students in Reynolds, Gresham-Barlow and Centennial districts. They attend CAL half-time in their junior and senior years.
CAL had a 99 percent graduation rate, Egan said, but CAL students are counted in their "home" school's graduation statistics.
Egan said career education and the Center for Advanced Learning are "about authentic choice based on hope, a sense of one's future and a supportive classroom and/or school culture that grows committed young people."