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Rates are higher in school districts throughout Oregon, although some lawmakers question validity of data

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - The Crook County High School Class of 2020 overcame some unique challenges, but still got to celebrate graduation.

Crook County School District graduation rates are the highest in more than a decade, according to results recently released by Oregon Department of Education.

The district posted a district-wide graduation rate of 80%, its highest since 2008, and an 8% increase over 2019's graduation rate of 72%. The district-wide graduation rate is a combination of rates among Crook County High School and the alternative schools of Pioneer, Rimrock and COIC. The CCHS graduation rate of 91% is consistent with outcomes since 2016, district leaders said.

Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson has made improving graduation rates one of her top priorities since arriving in 2018, and she is pleased to see that effort bearing fruit.

"We're in the business of serving and helping students, and we owe it to our community to keep moving the needle and improve graduation rates," she said. "Students who graduate with a high school diploma are more likely to find a job and have lower rates of unemployment as adults."

At the same time, Johnson and other local educators are not about to rest on their laurels, and they hope to make additional strides in the school years ahead.

"While we're happy with the results, our work is far from over," she said. "I'll be collaborating with the school board and our principals to find new and innovative ways to reach more students in the future."

Johnson points to success in three key areas that helped spur the improved graduation rates. The school district continues to grow its career and technical education programs for middle and high school students, enhance resources for special education students, and ensure Hispanic students are on track to graduate through efforts like the dual-language program at the elementary level and the college-readiness program AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination).

District-wide graduation results are 96% for career and technical education and 92% for Hispanic students, and CCHS graduation rates for students with disabilities is 95%.

"Graduating 95% of our students with disabilities from CCHS is a phenomenal achievement. That's a testament to the dedication and professionalism of our staff, and the personalized outreach we've developed through our special education advocates," Johnson said. "We've also made great strides with our minority students and families. We have Hispanic staff members dedicated to our Hispanic students in every building, and that helps them feel welcome and safe in our schools."

District leaders attributed their career and technical education (CTE) successes to continued investments by Facebook, which has enabled the district to add a new CTE program at Crook County Middle School called Life Skills. In addition, the new computer science program at CCHS will offer students the ability to complete a national certification program in coding.

"We know that CTE classes help improve grades in core classes, because they offer students a real-life, hands-on experience that keeps them engaged and more excited to come to school," said CCHS Principal Michelle Jonas. "CCHS is proud to offer one of the most robust CTE programs in the region that includes classes like health occupations, ag science, natural resources, graphic design, culinary arts, business marketing, computer science and robotics. And we're getting ready to launch a new construction program as well."

The continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic has added a new challenge to keeping graduation rates up, as some students struggle to stay on track. Engagement tends to fall when students are learning from home, so the school district is keeping track of every student, especially seniors, who are missing credits and jeopardizing the opportunity to graduate in the spring.

"We're fortunate that high school students have been in the classroom two days a week in our hybrid model, but some students really struggle without the daily interaction with their teachers and peers," Johnson said. "Each of our high school principals has a list of students they track and provide additional support and resources, so none of our students is left behind."

Crook County educators weren't alone in celebrating graduation rates. The Oregon Department of Education proclaimed that 82.6% of students graduated statewide, making it the highest rate ever recorded. The department added that the increase means the four-year graduation rate has increased more than 10 percentage points compared to six years ago.

State education leaders went on to note that the gap in high school graduation rates between most historically underserved student groups and the state average is smaller than in previous years.

"While the Class of 2020 ended their high school careers in a way no one wanted or expected, the graduation rate shows how much work they put in over the last 13 years with the support of their teachers and families," said ODE Director Colt Gill said. "Seeing greater growth in graduation rates for most students of color, students with disabilities and students navigating poverty than the state as a whole means our continued efforts to foster equity and excellence for all Oregon students continues to yield positive results."

ODE acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools to in-person learning in March 2020, and some of the rules regarding graduation were changed. Seniors still had the same 24 credit requirement for the Oregon Diploma as in previous years, but they were assured credit for any course in which they were passing at the time of the extended school closure. The intent was to allow schools to provide additional focus on securing credit-earning opportunities and learning for seniors who were not yet passing all required courses at the time of the school closure.

Not everyone was convinced that the graduation rates were indicative of educational improvements. Oregon's Senate Republicans said the rates instead reflect a lower standard than previous school years. They stated that attendance was hardly tracked and added that students didn't receive traditional grades and that school districts did not require standardized testing.

"Schools and students went through and overcame many difficulties during the pandemic. But for the governor and her education department to pretend that these new statistics somehow indicate a higher quality of education for our kids, particularly for our minority communities for whom we know the impact of school closures was disproportionate, is ridiculous," said Senate Republican Leader, Fred Girod (R-Lyons). "We should not rely on statistics from a year that caused so much disruption to education to give us insights on how well our schools are doing at educating our kids. It is pretty easy to artificially inflate graduation rates when you don't know if kids showed up to school or learned anything when they did. It's easy to give someone a diploma when we change grading to pass/no pass."

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