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School district hits 83.7 percent and also shrinks key achievement gaps; St. Paul above 90 percent for fourth time in five years

The graduation rate for Newberg Public Schools jumped to 83.7 percent in 2017, clearing 80 percent for the first time in at least a decade and marking the third consecutive year of growth and an improvement of nearly 14 percentage points since the district's rate bottomed out at 70.0 percent in 2013. GRAPHIC FILE PHOTO - The Newberg School District is celebrating a graduation rate of 83.7 percent, according to a report released by the Oregon Depatment of Education last week.

According to figures released last week by the Oregon Department of Education, Newberg also made significant gains in historically underserved populations to shrink some of the achievement gaps it has been targeting since Kym LeBlanc-Esparza came on as superintendent prior to the 2013-2014 school year.

The key, according to LeBlanc-Esparza, was a concerted effort to analyze district performance in order to inform a steady stream of investment in new programs, approaches and training over the past five years, all guided by a renewed commitment to core values like equity, innovation and accountability.

"Through building an understanding of our patterns of achievement and success, we began to realize where we needed to put our energy," LeBlanc-Esparza said. "When we focused on our 'All Means All' initiative by recognizing and telling the stories of all kids, we looked at leverage points in the K-12 system that we realize have a huge weight on kids' success."

Newberg graduated 79.3 percent of students in the class of 2016, besting the previous recent high of 78.2 percent in 2012 before rising another 4.4 percent last year to set a new high for the past decade. The rate was 75.7 in 2015 and had not cleared 80 percent in at least a decade.

Newberg continued to not only outpace the overall state average, which also rose to a new high for the past decade at 76.7 percent, but performed better in all student groups. That includes Hispanic/Latino students, who graduated at an 80.2 percent clip in Newberg compared to 72.5 percent for the state, economically disadvantaged students (76.0/70.1), students with disabilities (68.1/58.8) and Ever English Learners (78.7/73.9)

The district, however, was more pleased with the gains it has made in shrinking the achievement gaps with all four historically underserved populations in the past three years, as the rate for Hispanic/Latino students jumped up 14.6 percentage points from 63.6 in 2015. Economically disadvantaged students rose 20 points from 56 percent and Ever English Learners climbed 19.9 points from 58.8 percent. The rate for white students in Newberg rose from 78.1 to 84.5 percent over the same period.

"It's been the staff doing lots of work and putting lots of energy into getting students to that place," said District Chief of Staff Mikaela Schamp, who oversees dropout prevention. "As soon as everyone understood we simply aren't going to accept that some kids will fail and some will not, we were able to increase opportunities for kids to succeed through alternative pathways to provide credit and individualized programs."

Students with disabilities saw the biggest increase, as just 36.1 percent graduated in 2015 before that rate shot up to 67.9 percent in 2016 and 68.2 percent in 2017.

"We provided a lot of training on specially designed instruction and we made a big investment in assistive technology," Director of Special Services Candace Pelt said. "We've also focused on the seamless transition after high school, which means we're preparing students for adulthood while in high school which encourages them and changes attitudes about the value of their education."

While the recent trends are certainly encouraging, continuing improvement will need to be seen in the coming years to validate the district's efforts.

"The increased work our educators are doing is having a positive impact on the rate, but at the same time, we continue to work to ensure that the conversation isn't about the number of students who graduate," Newberg High School Principal Kyle Laier said. "It's also about ensuring that they're prepared for college, career and life when they leave Newberg High School."

In St. Paul, district officials were proud that the high school graduated 92.3 percent of students in the class of 2017, marking the fourth time in the past five years the school has eclipsed 90 percent. The only exception in that period was 2015, when the rate was 89.3.

The 2017 rate was down slightly from 92.8 percent in 2016, but Superintendent Joe Wehrli did note that a foreign exchange student was erroneously included in the 2017 cohort, but the error was not caught in time to change the official figures. Without that student, the school's rate would have been at 96.0.

"We still came out with good numbers," Wehrli said. "I think we're about a 15-to-1 student to teacher ratio at the middle/high school and that allows teachers to keep a close eye on all the kids."

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