by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Reconnection Center teacher Caleb Jackson helps student Thomas OHara with a geometry problem. Outreach workers track down students who miss school for 10 days or more and invite them in to reconnect.   A Portland Public Schools watchdog group wants district leaders to kick up efforts to boost the four-year graduation rate of 63 percent — the worst among all large districts in Oregon.

“Everybody needs to raise the bar and go into crisis intervention mode, how to fix this, because what they’re doing is not working,” says Lisa Zuniga, a Southeast Portland parent of three PPS students.

Zuniga is part of a group called the Portland Parents Coalition, which formed last year to lobby the district to offer a full high school schedule. Now it’s the latest of many groups to take a critical look at the graduation rate.

Each of the lenses — an internal audit, an external review, the state’s achievement compact, and several district-led reform efforts — raises a question that has yet to be answered: What, exactly, does it mean to graduate?

To some, graduating is earning a diploma in four years. That’s the “cohort” graduation rate, the method the federal government began requiring in 2008, which PPS piloted for the state.

Under the old method — calculating the number of students who started their senior year and finished it — PPS’ graduation rate had been 70 percent.

The cohort method now tracks and counts where each freshman lands four years later — a more rigorous measure that made the 2008-09 graduation rate of 53 percent come as a big shock.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Dustin Contreras, 18, a former Lincoln student, works on his pre-calculus work at the Reconnection Center to earn his degree. Students come for the personalized attention and wrap-around services while they get back on their feet. In the past four years, that rate has risen 10 percentage points to 63 percent, thanks in part to an effort to count previously uncounted students.

The irony in those numbers is that PPS has one of the largest alternative school systems around, with 14 contracted public and private programs. Yet most of those alternative school students do not graduate in four years, meaning that they adversely impact the graduation rate. The most recent on-time graduation rate for the district’s 14 alternative schools was just 9 percent, while it was 78 percent for the other schools: Jefferson, Benson, Franklin, Wilson, Cleveland, Madison, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Grant and the Metropolitan Learning Center.

The district’s alternative Alliance High School and two charter schools are in yet another category. Alliance posted a four-year graduation rate of 21 percent; Leadership and Entrepreneurship Public Charter High School also came in at 21 percent; and Trillium Public Charter School posted 56 percent.

“I think Portland is an outlier in the sheer number of kids that get put in alternative ed,” says Caroline Fenn, a Southwest Portland schools activist and member of the parent coalition. “If you want to figure out where we can focus energy to make sure more kids graduate, you have to look at alternative ed.”

Effort being made

The coalition’s Top 10 list — created as a response to the June 2013 performance audit of the graduation rate by PPS Auditor Richard Tracy — recommends this analysis as one of their action items.

District leaders’ response to that: We’re on it.

“We do appreciate that the community feels the urgency,” says PPS Chief Academic Officer Sue Ann Higgens. “We’re really looking in the mirror right now. We’ve got to get better.”

She points to the myriad of efforts to look into the graduation rate, including:

n The June audit, which compares PPS’ actions to that of other districts. It found that PPS spends $2,000 to $3,000 more per student than comparable districts, yet graduates students at rates that are 6 to 14 percentage points lower.

n A December report by EcoNorthwest on the High School System Design, which checks the progress of the district’s new system (after the closure of Marshall High, with more balanced staffing, enrollment and coursework at all schools) a year into implementation.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Lynn Buedefeldt, mother hen and curriculum instructor at the Reconnection Center, hugs student Briseida Yudith Lopez-Munoz, a former student at Madison. Youre an angel, Buedefeldt calls her. I missed you, she texts them when they dont show up.n A new High School Action Team, which has met monthly since April and will continue meeting this fall to present recommendations to the board by December or January to inform the budget process. They’re slicing data to focus on what’s working and what’s not.

n A PPS-led “segmentation analysis” of the district’s high school population to get an accurate look at the age and credit status of students, to determine what programs are needed. Now in draft form, the hefty report will come up for board review this fall.

n An alternative school report card that’s currently being developed, between PPS, the state Department of Education and the Northwest Evaluation Association. The report card will be a qualitative look at what exists now, including their completion rates, attendance and school climate.

Alternative schools

serve purpose

So if alternative schools don’t help graduate students in four years, what is their role?

There’s a lot of misconception about that 9 percent graduation rate, says Korinna Wolfe, who oversees the district’s Multiple Pathways to Graduation department.

“The dream or thought that all students should graduate in four years is not the reality,” she says.

Instead, Wolfe says, the alternative schools act as a safety net to scoop students back into the system, many of whom were just a few credits short of graduating.

According to the EcoNorthwest report, 91 percent of alternative education students had been out of school for six weeks or more. Seven percent were pregnant or parenting; 6 percent were homeless; 16 percent were special education students; and 56 percent were students of color. Due to family or personal hardships, most have had attendance or behavior issues at their prior schools.

The little-understood goal of the alternative school, then, is not to “graduate” them by the cohort definition, but to “complete” high school, Wolfe says, even if it takes five, six or seven years (since they’re allowed to receive a public education up to age 21).

She points to a chart that shows that PPS keeps 11 percent of its students in the system to complete a diploma after four years, and the rest of the state keeps 8 percent in. The district’s completion rate after four years is 73 percent, compared to 74 percent statewide.

Under the state’s newly adopted “40/40/20 goal,” those completers will count for something.

The goal states that by 2025, all adult Oregonians will hold a high school diploma or equivalent, 40 percent will have an associate’s degree or “meaningful” postsecondary certificate, and 40 percent will hold a bachelor’s degree or advanced degree.

PPS leaders feel the pressure. But, they say, the stage has been set, there are many “pockets of success” to build on, and the on-time graduation picture isn’t the only gauge of the work underway.

“We value completion,” says district spokesman Robb Cowie. “It has an impact statistically. But if you’re looking at overall completion, we’re on par with the rest of the state.”

Has the district made every effort to serve some of those alternative school students in the comprehensive schools before they run into trouble, Fenn and her coalition members wonder?

As the auditor pointed out, Fenn notes that Hillsboro uses a “Care” team to monitor student attendance; Salem has graduation coaches; other districts have a variety of interventions that have been shown to work.

“Right now we’re not doing some of the basic things that have been shown to work elsewhere,” Fenn says.

The December EcoNorthwest report makes that point as well. It recommends strengthening the rigor and accountability in the alternative programs, and trying to “better identify students who can obtain an on-time degree,” like 8 percent of the students who continue on after four years that “look like” four-year diploma recipients, based on statistical profiles.

Schools chief under


Another of the parent coalition’s top 10 recommendations is to hold the superintendent accountable for graduation rate progress in her yearly evaluation by the school board.

Superintendent Carole Smith, hired in Oct. 2009, is due for her annual perfomance evaluation this month, as she enters her seventh year. Each of her past reviews have been glowing.

Smith is now the longest-serving PPS superintendent in 30 years, since Matt Prophet led from 1982-92. Five others led before Smith, serving between one and six years.

Coalition members say they support Smith’s leadership and aren’t focusing on her personally. “It’s about the district overall,” Fenn says. “At the end of the day are we doing everything we can for kids? We believe the audit points out several areas we could be doing a better job.”

There is, in fact, no extensive discussion of the high school graduation rate in the superintendent’s reviews.

The only mention of the graduation rate is in the board’s “Milestones” indicators, which track student growth in three areas: reading in third grade, 10th-graders on track to graduate, and the four-year cohort graduation rate.

In Smith’s latest review, a chart shows that four of the six performance targets (including two specific to the graduation rate) were met in the 2011-12 school year. It states that “The Board expects all targets to be met or exceeded in the coming year.”

Board member Ruth Adkins feels she and her colleagues are holding the superintendent’s feet to the fire on the graduation rate issue, which she feels overarches all of the district’s work.

While the graduation rate is not singled out as any of the board’s official priorities this year, “It’s not about just one goal or action item,” but woven into everything from teacher contracts to equity to school funding and building modernization.

Board member Bobbie Regan considers the graduation rate her top issue, and says it should be the top factor in the superintendent’s annual review. But she’s frustrated by the timing of the review — three months before the latest graduation data is released. “It’s hard for us to be doing this without those numbers,” Regan says.

Moving forward, Regan wants the board to step up its vision and leadership. She wants to do a better job of analyzing what’s working here and in other districts, and not be afraid of setting bold, out-of-the-box goals, like encouraging every student to graduate with a year of college credits under their belt.

“The urgency I feel is that we have so many things in motion, we’ve invested a huge amount of funds ... and I’m wanting to see results, sooner and faster,” Regan says. “If we’re not seeing the results, we have to change gears. If I get off the board after three terms and we haven’t made progress on the 63 percent, I’ll wonder why I even did it.”

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