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Barlow hits historic high for graduating seniors in pandemic year, others make gains

PMG FILE PHOTO - Many folks in Corbett lined the streets as a parade of proud Cardinals got ready to receive their diplomas. The class of 2020 had a sudden and unusual end to their K-12 school careers, but nonetheless, most of the big high schools in East Multnomah County showed improvements in their 2020 graduation rates from a year earlier.

Both 2020 and 2021 graduation rates will be marked by asterisk in the books because of the abrupt end to the 2020 school year in March and the distance learning imposed for most of the 2020-21 school year.

The biggest improvement in graduation rates at East Multnomah County high schools was recorded by Barlow High School, which boosted its rate more than six points from 83.4% in 2019 to 89.5% in 2020. The Bruins graduated at higher rates than students statewide or in Multnomah County.

"This is our best graduation rate in history, since rates started being monitored in this way," said Bruce Schmidt, Barlow's principal.

PMG FILE PHOTO - A 2020 Barlow grad waits in the drive-thru line to pick up his diploma. Barlow had the biggest increase in graduation rates in East County in 2020, with 89.5% of seniors earning a sheepskin.

"We made a huge focus on seniors and getting them over the bar to graduation," Schmidt explained.

But this wasn't a one-year blip, Schmidt said.

"We've got good systems around credit recovery to pick kids up along the way," he said.

Only two small East County schools performed better than Barlow.

At Corbett High School, 95% of students graduated in 2020, up from the 89.7% of seniors grabbing a sheepskin in 2019. And, Springwater Trail High School boosted its graduation rate to 97.8% from the 2019 rate of 88%.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Centennial High Schools 86.2% graduation rate in 2020 bested the 82.6% rate statewide and the 80.6% rate of all Multnomah County high schools.

Centennial High School's graduation rate went from 82.4% in 2019 to 86.2% in 2020.

Gresham High went from 79.2% to 81.4% in 2020, an increase of more than two points for the Gophers.

The only decline was at Reynolds High School, which also has the lowest share of students graduating in four years in East County. Reynolds saw 73.3% of seniors receive their diploma in 2020, down from the 76.6% in 2019 that achieved that goal.

PMG FILE PHOTO  - Reynolds High Schools graduation rate in 2020 slipped slightly from the year earlier to 73.3%. Graduating Raiders were honored at multiple, timed ceremonies at various locations around the high school.

"We are incredibly proud of the hard work our students, families, teachers, administrators and community partners are doing at Reynolds High School," said Steven Padilla, assistant director of public realtions and partnerships at the Reynolds district.

"Over the last five years, we have worked together to increase graduation rates by almost 20%. Although there was a slight dip last spring as students were quickly forced into distance learning, our students actually did better than we had hoped as they struggled with health concerns, economic distress, and homelessness during this pandemic," Padilla added.

He noted that Reynolds High "has outpaced the growth of other comprehensive high schools and the state in the demographic sub-groups. We expect RHS to get back on their trendline of increasing graduation rates as we welcome student back to in-person learning in the future."

PMG FILE PHOTO - Gresham High School Principal Drake Shelton hands a proud Gopher his diploma in a drive-thru ceremony.

Statewide, the graduation rate went from 80% in 2019 to 82.6% in 2020. The state rate "is the highest it's ever been," said Jon Wiens, the Oregon Department of Education's director of accountability and reporting.

"The opportunity gaps are continuing to close for many students, but obviously there is more work to be done," Wiens said.

In Multnomah County, 80.6% of seniors received a diploma in four years, an improvement from the 77.8% in 2019.

In March 2020, just as seniors were anticipating prom, graduations, spring sports, signing yearbooks and other rites of passage, the coronavirus shut school buildings. It turned out, those seniors would never walk the halls as students again.

And as for the commencement ceremonies, schools took a variety of approaches. Some were drive-thru. Others were outside and socially-distanced.

"It's so sad. When it was our last day of school, we didn't even know it was our last day of school," Barlow High School 2020 graduate Jordana Young said at the time.

Schools scrambled to provide remote learning, but seniors were not required to attend these distance classes. Statewide, if a senior was passing a class when schools were shuttered, they passed the class, received credit for the course and it counted toward their diploma.

"Some people might say that 'oh well it was easier for (class of 2020) students to graduate,' so rates are up. But I don't think that's a fair statement," Schmidt said.

The switch to distance learning added a whole new set of challenges for students and their families, and that included seniors that were shy of credits to graduate, Schmidt explained.

COURTESY PHOTO: KAREN HAWLEY - Corbett School District honored the class of 2020 with a festive outdoor graduation culminating in fireworks. Thats a fitting tribute to a class with one of the highest graduation rates in the state.

Some seniors lacking credits had to go to work to make up family income lost in pandemic layoffs and others had difficulty getting access to distance learning because of a lack of internet or a computer. That made it difficult for some seniors to make up a class they failed earlier in high school.

Barlow deployed teachers that taught only seniors, who no longer had to "attend" classes, to work with seniors who lacked the credits to graduate.

Schmidt credited the teachers, counselors and other staff at Barlow for working to get all students what they needed to graduate.

"Our staff did an amazing job," he said.

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