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Grad rates improve, more work ahead

My View: There is plenty to celebrate as PPS actions benefit all high school students


High school graduation rates released by the state showed some encouraging results for Portland Public Schools. Gains at many schools indicate that recent reforms at neighborhood high schools are working.

Yet, PPS’s overall on-time graduation rate remains too low. We are taking new steps to accelerate progress across our entire high school system.

According to the state, Portland’s on-time graduation rate among the 3,400 students in the class of 2012 was 63 percent, up 1 point from the previous year. Portland’s drop-out rate also declined to 3 percent.

While modest, these gains continued a three-year improvement trend, especially at Portland’s neighborhood comprehensive high schools and specialized schools (Benson and Jefferson). In 2012, nearly eight of 10 students who started in one of these “traditional” PPS high schools earned a regular diploma in four years.

That’s important, because two years ago the Portland School Board approved difficult but necessary reforms that focused on this part of our high school system.

These reforms included overhauling high school programs, closing a high school campus and redrawing boundaries. The School Board took these actions for one reason: Our high school system was failing to serve too many students. Glaring inequities across the system helped fuel an unacceptably low graduation rate and intolerable achievement gap.

Today, these tough and controversial changes are producing better results. Our under-enrolled schools are attracting more students. Students have equitable access to well-rounded programs at every neighborhood school. The percentage of students who are college- ready is increasing.

Portland high schools also remain the schools of choice in our community. A stable and even growing percentage of students who live in our school district are attending PPS high schools.

Yet, most encouraging are the significant gains in our bottom line metric: graduation rates.

The on-time graduation rate in PPS has increased 10 points since the class of 2012 entered high school. (In comparison, Oregon’s graduation rate increased 2 points in the past three years.)

That 10-point gain meets the improvement target the School Board set in 2010, when they approved sweeping, systemwide reforms. PPS high schools have hit this target two years earlier than originally projected.

For the class of 2012, we continued to see stronger results in many schools:

Madison High School’s on-time graduation rate rose eight points — in 2012, more than seven of 10 Madison students graduated on time. (Franklin and Wilson saw increases that nearly rivaled Madison’s.)

Jefferson and Roosevelt both posted four-point increases. Roosevelt’s graduation rate has increased 15 points during the past two years, and Jefferson is up eight points in the same period.

Many schools are doing better at serving all students well and making unprecedented progress in closing the graduation rate gap between white students and students of color. In 2012:

Grant High School closed the graduation rate gap among white, black and Hispanic students. All three groups posted rates between 83 percent and 86 percent, with black students posting the highest rate.

Franklin, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Wilson all posted graduation rates for black students that were equal to or better than those for white students.

Lincoln High School posted the highest graduation rate for Latino students at 96 percent.

Graduation rates do not turn around overnight, because they are calculated based on outcomes for all students in each high school class starting in ninth grade. When schools put reforms in place, it takes four years for those changes to be fully reflected in the on-time graduation rate.

That is why early returns on the high school changes approved in 2010 are so promising. These improvements are a credit to Portland’s teachers, principals and other staff, as well as community volunteers and partners.

Yet, no one who works on behalf of Portland’s students is content with our results. We want all students to complete school, ready for college or a career. We have a long way to go to close the achievement gap: district-wide, we need to serve Native American, black and Hispanic students as well as white students, and improve results for all.

To sustain our progress, we are taking steps to improve rigor and fairness of teaching and grading in our high schools. We are strengthening accountability in our charters and alternative schools (which serve students outside a “traditional” campus, or lagging in credits).

Finally, we are working with Salem to increase education funding. Four years of recession-driven state cuts have forced PPS to make tens of millions in reductions each year, leaving fewer teachers in our schools.

To accelerate Portland’s gains, we want to reinstate a full load of classes for all high school students, restore full-time librarians at elementary grades and fund full-day kindergarten. Together, we can give our schools the support they need to produce results we can all be proud of and that all Portland students deserve.

Carole Smith is superintendent of Portland Public Schools.