Oregon's four-year high school graduation rates, released Thursday, show continued modest improvement. The on-time graduation rate of high school students in the state reached 76.7 percent, a nearly 2 percentage point gain from last year's figure.
The statewide graduation rate, widely reported to be one of the worst in the nation, has been slowly rising since reporting requirements changed three years ago to include students who earn modified diplomas.
The Woodburn School District, meanwhile, continues to have one of the highest graduation rates in the state despite its largely disadvantaged student body. In 2016-17, 88.92 percent of students graduated within four years, a 5.73 percent increase from the 2015-16 school year's rate of 84.1 percent, the new data from the Oregon Department of Education show.
Chuck Ransom, superintendent of the Woodburn School District, said the district's strategies have made the improvement possible. "Helping all students achieve requires long-term strategic initiatives that are based on best practices and solid research. The belief by staff and the community that all children can learn is essential, as well," Ransom said. "We are grateful for the support and vision of our community, staff and school board to make this happen."
Some of the smaller districts in the Woodburn area also saw improved four-year graduation rates last year. That includes the Gervais School District, which had a 71.91 percent graduation rate in 2016-17, up 4 percentage points from the prior year's rate.
And the North Marion School District graduated 83.69 percent of its students on time, up significantly from the prior year's rate of 77.38 percent.
Meanwhile, the St. Paul School District's graduation rate in 2016-17 was 92.59 percent — a tiny drop from the prior year's rate of 92.86 percent, but still well above the state average.
The Mount Angel School District was the only Woodburn-area district whose graduation rate dropped significantly last year. In 2016-17, 75.93 percent of students graduated on time, a 16.66 percent drop from the prior year's rate of 91.11 percent.
Marginalized students make some gains
In Woodburn, certain groups that have historically been underserved saw improved graduation rates last year.
That included students with disabilities, 79.59 percent of whom graduated on time in the Woodburn district in the 2016-17 school year. That's a 15.97 percent increase from the 2015-16 four-year graduation rate of 68.63 percent.
The graduation rate of Woodburn students with disabilities is notable when compared to the statewide graduation rate for that student group. Even with modified diplomas taken into consideration, students with disabilities in Oregon continue to graduate in four years at a very low rate: 58.8 percent in 2016-17, a slight improvement from the 2015-16 graduation rate of 55.9 percent.
In Woodburn, migrant students, who made up 13.34 percent of the district's possible graduates, made huge gains. Last year, 93.62 percent of the district's migrant students graduated on time, a 19.75 percent increase from the prior year's rate of 78.18 percent.
Ransom highlighted migrant and Hispanic students' outcomes in the district in his emailed statement. "We also continue to close the achievement gap between different student populations, such as economically disadvantaged, Hispanic and migrant students," he wrote.
Statewide, the newest data set that the education department is now tracking — homelessness — seems to be indicative of trouble at school. Out of the nearly 4,000 Oregon high school seniors reported to be homeless at any point in high school, only half graduated on time.
ODE did not provide data on homeless student outcomes for individual districts or schools. But the statewide trend rings true for Marion County: Of the 349 students in the county who experienced homelessness, only 51 percent graduated on time.
Achievement gap narrows
Oregon officials say they are particularly proud of the improving statewide graduation rate of students of color, who have for years experienced an achievement gap with their white peers.
"We are encouraged by the work underway to make our schools welcoming and effective for all students, which has contributed to better performance for those who have been historically underserved," said Acting Deputy Superintendent Colt Gill — the leader of the state education department — in a statement with the release of the data. "However, there is much more to be done to make sure all students have the tools and support necessary to reach graduation."
Indeed, students of underserved races and ethnicities (which include black/African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students) saw an improved statewide graduation rate last year: 71.07 percent graduated on time, an increase from the prior year's rate of 68.27 percent.
But across the state, black and Native American student groups continued to struggle on the whole. Graduation rates for those groups were at 67.6 percent and 59.1 percent, respectively, making them the ethnic and racial student groups with the lowest graduation rates.
Compared to students of other ethnicities, Asian students had the highest graduation rate, at 88.9 percent statewide. And across Oregon, white students (66.5 percent of potential graduates) graduated at a 78 percent rate.
Meanwhile, Latino students statewide experienced a 7 percentage point jump in the last three years. Their four-year graduation rate now stands at 72.5 percent, nearly on par with their white peers.
In Woodburn, Hispanic and Latino students, who comprised 82.67 percent of the district's potential graduates, graduated at a rate well above the state average. In 2016-17, 87.63 percent of Woodburn's Latino and Hispanic students graduated on time.
The Gervais School District also had high graduation rates among its Hispanic and Latino students. Last year, 74 percent of those students graduated on time, an improvement from the prior year's rate of 72.50 percent.
And North Marion also saw improved rates for its Latino and Hispanic students, 83.93 percent of whom graduated on time last year, an increase from the prior year's rate of 77.78 percent.
Woodburn isn't immune from the achievement gap, though. White students, who make up just 15.05 percent of the Woodburn district's potential graduates, continue to graduate at a higher rate than students of color, with 94.34 percent graduating on time last year.
The Mount Angel district also has a marked achievement gap. While 87.5 percent of its students not of underserved races/ethnicities graduated on time last year, only 66.67 percent of its students in those underserved races/ethnicities did so.
CTE correlates with graduation
Across Oregon, there's a continued correlation between high graduation rates and career and technical education, known as CTE, classes. Even students with small amounts of these hands-on programs, such as woodshop and mechanics, seem to succeed. Statewide, students with just half of one CTE credit graduated at a rate of 86.3 percent; those who concentrate on CTE, with a full credit or more, graduated at a 91.7 percent rate.
That trend trickles down to the Woodburn area. In the Woodburn School District, 98.21 percent of CTE concentrators and 95.98 percent of CTE participants graduated on time. In every school district in the Woodburn area, CTE concentrators and participants graduated at a higher rate than the student body as a whole in 2016-17.
"Hands-on learning awakens students to the power of their own potential, and connects classroom with career," said Governor Kate Brown in a statement. "That kind of engagement helps students cross the stage at graduation and equips them for next steps, whether that's college or a job. I am dedicated to ensuring that students, communities and districts have what they need for all students to graduate with a plan for their future."
Brown was criticized last year for not fully funding the requirement of Measure 98, which voters passed in 2016 to create an earmark for high school graduation boosters, like CTE programs. The budget passed by the legislature only funded half of the cost, according to Measure 98 proponent Stand for Children.
Certain schools stand out
Of all the Woodburn high schools, Success Alternative High School, the district's education program supporting struggling 10th- through 12th-graders, saw the biggest increase in its on-time graduation rate. Last year, 79.07 percent of Success students graduated in four years, a 58.14 percent increase from last year's 50 percent rate. It stands out as the highest four-year graduation rate in years for the school.
Meanwhile, 98.75 percent of Wellness, Business and Sports School students graduated on time, a significant increase from the prior year's 91.67 percent. Its graduation rate was the highest among Woodburn-area schools last year, leading the school with the second-highest rate, St. Paul High School, by more than 6 percentage points.
St. Paul High School and Gervais High School were neck-and-neck, 92.59 percent and 92.42 percent, respectively. Gervais High School's four-year rate was a bit lower than its rate 2015-16 rate of 98.5 percent.
Woodburn Arts and Communications Academy's graduation rate increased, rising to 88.1 percent, up from the previous year's 84.06 percent.
Only two Woodburn high schools had falling four-year graduation rates. That included the Academy of International Studies, whose 78.43 percent rate is still above the state average but slightly lower than its rate last year of 80.33 percent. And while Woodburn Academy of Art, Science and Technology's 91.49 percent graduation rate is far above the state average, it is a decrease from last year's rate of 94.51 percent.
And the Gervais School District's Samuel Brown Academy, an alternative school geared to early high school completers, GED-seekers, teen parents and students with medical conditions, saw its four-year graduation rate drop, too. Just 13.04 percent of its students graduated in four years, a small decrease from the prior year's 14.63 percent. The school sees greater success in its four-year completer rate, which includes GED earners. Last year, 34.78 percent of its students either earned a degree or GED certificate in four years.
-Shasta Kearns Moore of the Portland Tribune contributed reporting.