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Every student is a success

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This is an opportunity to open up a conversation with the community, not only in Woodburn, but across the state, about alternative education and finding a way to measure alternative schools in a way that makes sense - not just in graduation rates.

The announcement of the graduation rates for the classes of 2015 and 2016 showed Woodburn still leading the state, especially with traditionally underserved populations. We are incredibly proud of our students and staff for this accomplishment and appreciate the support of our community to make this happen.

The results did show a drop for the five-year graduation rate for Success High School, and, as its principal, I wanted to share some factors that influence our results. This is an opportunity to open up a conversation with the community, not only in Woodburn, but across the state, about alternative education and finding a way to measure alternative schools in a way that makes sense — not just in graduation rates.

First, it's normal for graduation rates to fluctuate because each class is unique. Also, our class size is small enough that a single student can impact the results. However, the greatest factor is simply that the nature of alternative education is different from traditional high schools. One of the challenges of alternative education is that we often welcome students late in their educational careers. Many are new to our district and have not had access to the system of instruction and supports that have boosted graduation rates in our district. Our job is to meet students where they are and help them start the journey to a diploma.

A good percentage of our students thrive quickly in a different environment, while others continue to struggle. Some students are highly mobile and pass through our school only briefly before moving once again and we cannot control if or how they are served once they leave us. Regardless, we may be held accountable for their graduation as the last school they attended.

For other students, their educational journey may begin so late that even a fifth year is not sufficient to complete the high school diploma requirements. Sometimes the right thing to do for students unable to complete in five years is to support their decision to pursue an adult education program rather than continuing in a high school setting, even though these students will be considered "statistical" dropouts. Whether the outcome is a completed diploma or an encouraged student, we applaud the collaborative efforts of our teachers and families in setting every student on the path to a successful future.

The rules that determine graduation rates may be fairly accurate measures for traditional high schools with stable student populations who start as freshmen and stay for four years, but for alternative high schools, dropout recovery programs and even just low income schools with highly mobile populations, the rates are more difficult to interpret.

We know that graduation rates are an important measure of how we are doing. However our focus remains on the individual student. This commitment, in turn, encourages more students to look to the Success program as an option when they have fallen behind.

The term "alternative school" can be scary for some, but those who get to know our students realize that they are no different from other high schoolers; they just need a little extra support or time or a smaller school environment. Our school board and district office support Success and allow us to creatively adapt to meet the needs of our students. The French Prairie Kiwanis recognize our students every quarter, and Mid Valley Community Church and the Woodburn Foursquare Church have welcomed our use of their facilities for special events and after school activities. Our students, in turn, give back to the community through Love Santa, the Mr. and Miss Bulldog Pageant and our Surprise a Senior, Help a Child program.

Perhaps most significantly, our community passed a bond to build us a much-needed new building. The new facility will allow our students to remain connected with staff, students, sports and extracurricular programs offered on our main high school campus.

Our students have overcome unimaginable odds and are working toward graduation. Our job is to be a lighthouse and a beacon of hope to those who need us. Every student who makes the brave decision to enroll in alternative education here and at other schools across the state is a success and should be supported.

Dr. Jennifer Dixon is principal of Success High School in Woodburn. Dixon is also a published researcher and presenter who enjoys making sense of data for stakeholders and using research and statistical analysis to answer questions related to educational practice, equity and student success. In 2016, she served on the Oregon Department of Education's School and District Improvement work group planning the state-level implementation of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.