student achievement

Want to Help Oregon's Dismal Graduation Rate? Check Out These Superstar Schools

The latest stats on Oregon’s performance in education are disheartening at best. When it comes to graduation rates, we’re performing worse than 46 other states. Oregon has attempted a number of statewide efforts in the last decade, few of which have moved the dial on academic outcomes. We’re continuously putting a new name on the same initiative and hoping for new results. In 2011, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber created the 13-member Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB). Its charge was to “zero in on key strategies, break down the silos separating preschools, public schools, and colleges, and overhaul spending priorities” and use an equity lens to do so. The OEIB joined the ranks of other agencies such as the Oregon Education Department and other state agencies focused on sending more students to college. The OEIB was wildly unpopular in some circles and in 2015, when Gov. Kate Brown took office (following Kitzhaber’s abrupt resignation), the OEIB was reorganized into the Chief Education Office (the appointed board disbanded). Same charge, new name. Just this last spring, Brown added a position to her administration, the Education Innovation Officer (EIO), who will identify key strategies for graduation and transitions between high school and postsecondary, as well as identifying potential ways to allocate funding to raise graduation rates. The EIO will be trying to determine what the barriers to graduation are, looking at successful schools and recommending policies that can bring rates up. Sound familiar? Yep, same job as the Oregon Department of Education, the Higher Education Coordinating Committee and the Chief Education Office. Now, I really don’t think that constantly repurposing the same initiative is going to get us far. I do think we need to do something differently. Some (teachers unions, some legislators) argue that simply giving out more money is what we need. I disagree.

Closer Look

Oregon spends quite a bit per pupil already. National Education Association (NEA) research ranks Oregon in the top half of all states (22nd) in per pupil expenditures for 2014-15. And graduation rates only rose 4 percent from 2011 to 2014. But in spite of the depressing stats, there are exceptions to the rule. Maybe the new EIO (and the Oregon Department of Education and the Chief Education Office) should take a close look at some of these remarkable schools and districts.
  • Woodburn School District, in the heart of Oregon’s agriculture and wine producing region, has a student body that is 78 percent Latino and 72 percent English learners. More than 95 percent of them are navigating poverty. But Woodburn has the highest graduation rate in the state, graduating 87 percent of its students on time. The absence of a gap between Latino and White students and between low- and middle-income students stands out as a startling exception to patterns long engrained in Oregon. What did Woodburn do right? Signs say implementing a dual immersion K-12 program 20-plus years ago has paid off.

  • Corvallis School District has seen its graduation rate grow from 70 percent to 86 percent since 2011. The district has focused on building relationships with all students and finding alternative paths to graduation for students who don’t fit into the traditional educational structure.
  • Portland’s Jefferson High School, Oregon’s only majority-Black high school, has raised its graduation rate from 54 percent in 2011 to 80 percent in 2015. What happened there? In 2011, Jefferson High was transformed into Jefferson High School Middle College for Advanced Studies, a magnet school providing students with extra resources and the option to take college courses. Jefferson’s graduation rate made a tremendous jump of 14 percent from 2014 to 2015.

The changes these schools implemented were done using their current resources, not extra dollars, suggesting that money isn’t the only answer—any more than a new official or agency is. We need to focus our attention on the schools with success stories and then apply lessons learned, finding ways to support that work and help districts innovate in ways that are right for them.
Iris Maria Chávez
Iris Maria Chávez is an education advocate and communications consultant, currently working with national and Oregon focused organizations to advance equity by supporting the creation of just policies, engaging with communities and supporting communications efforts that better communities in Oregon and across the nation. Iris Maria has lived in Portland for just over a year and came to the ...

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