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Graduation rates rise for Jefferson County School districts despite pandemic learning loss

COURTESY JEFFERSON COUNTY 509-J SCHOOL DISTRICT - Teachers are focused on helping kids succeed despite the unprecedented learning loss the pandemic 
caused, with more involved instruction and more emphasis on emotional well-being. The Madras-based 
509-J district and the Culver School District were among the minority of schools that took part in 
statewide testing last year. While the pandemic negatively impacted test statistics, both districts are 
looking at other matrixes that have shown positive results during this difficult period. Above, Jefferson 
County Middle School AVID teacher Deseret Duncan works with eighth grader Haley Burks.This year's Oregon school report card allows a greater look into the realities of learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report indicates schools across the state have lower rates of proficiency in every subject than their pre-pandemic numbers.

"We're so pleased to be in school with our students every day, it allows us to make a much bigger impact. We hope that we can continue to instruct in-person, and really allow all our students to flourish," said Dr. Jay Mathisen superintendent for Jefferson County School District 509-J.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and schools closed, the state released guidelines that changed letter grades to pass/fail and paused state testing for the 2019-2020 school year. Now that students have returned to in-person school, state testing in 2021 was optional. Jefferson County School District 509-J and Culver SD 4 decided to participate. All data from the report cards can be found at

The school report card, released yearly by the Oregon Department of Education, contains data and statistics on the demographics, proficiency, and readiness of students in each district and school in Oregon. As well as the individual school data, the report provides a look at the state overall.

With a statewide average participation rate of only 27.99% of students, the data for schools that did participate is highly skewed and does not portray an accurate representation of student understanding. However, Jefferson County School District 509-J and Culver SD 4 both had significantly lower proficiency rates in English Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science for all tested grade levels. With an average proficiency in English Language Arts of 27% for 509-J, and 32.7% for Culver SD, proficiency rates in the county are low compared to the 44.3% average English Language Arts proficiency rate in the state.

Superintedent and Elementary Principal for Culver School District Stefanie Garber says they're using more localized assessments to measure student success. These assements showed that students are behind in both reading and mathematics since the pandemic began.

"Students are behind this year, and it's not their fault," said Garber. "They didn't have normal school for almost a year, so we're really focused on meeting them where they are and moving forward."

Mathisen said, "We're looking at things like graduation rates and ninth grade on-track measurements to see how we're doing, and it's looking good."

Madras High School's on-time graduation rates this year are at 91%, Culver High Schools are at 94%, compared to a statewide average of 83%. For Madras High School, that shows roughly a 17% increase in on-time graduation rates compared to 2018-19. Culver High stayed about the same with a 95% on-time graduation rate in 2018-19.

"We are really focused on celebrating the wins, celebrating the students getting their diplomas, and celebrating the successes we do have," said Mathisen.

The other measure of success, ninth grade on-track rate, represents what percentage of students are finishing ninth grade with six of the 24 credits needed to graduate. For MHS, 75% of freshmen are on track, compared to 77% in 2018-2019. At CHS, 80% of freshman are on track, compared to 92% in 2018-2019. State averages fell by over 10% in the same period. The state considered these measurements the most accurate for depicting student success in the years to come.

However, the ongoing pandemic has affected how the school districts are setting goals and determining proficiency. Both districts in Jefferson County said their priority now is the emotional and mental well-being and development of the kids, with formative assessments and testing coming secondary.

"First and foremost for us is to make sure every student feels seen and loved," said Garber. "All our staff works hard to make sure every kid knows they're important and we care about them every day."

Both superintendents say this priority on mental and emotional well-being and growth is not new for school districts, but the pandemic has only led to an increase in poor mental health, and a lack of opportunity for social and emotional development in students.

"We're all able to see the impacts of the pandemic as a district, our values, and how administrators, teachers and students are doing internally is front of mind," said Mathisen, "Teachers are very focused on making sure each student achieves proficiency, they decide what matters, and how to assess the students."

While the data for this year has painted a complicated picture of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education, it looks like students are bouncing back in Jefferson County as they return to a more normal educational experience.

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