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The academy system that's operated for 15 years at WHS will change come fall 2022

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - A Woodburn School District task force has been undertaking the charge of reforming the high school, which means the academy system, by and large, will be going away.Woodburn High School has operated under the academy system since the 2006-07 school year.

Beginning in fall term 2022, that system will no longer be in place.

Woodburn School District's Director of Secondary Schools and Improvement Laurie Cooper recently reflected a bit about what led to the institution of the academies a decade and a half ago, and she elaborated on more recent developments leading to their dismantling.

"No Child Left Behind" was a national mantra when WSD developed the smaller schools within a larger one: Wellness, Business and Sports School; Woodburn Academy of Art and Science; Academy of International Studies; and Woodburn Arts and Communications Academy. The district also offers the alternative Woodburn Success High School.

Woodburn High School graduation rates were significantly less than stellar in 2001 when the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into legislation. New standards coming down the pike spurred new thinking and arrangements to meet them.

Fast forward a generation and the scenario is much different.

"Back in 2006 the structure and organization of high school in Woodburn changed, moving from one big school to four small schools to address inequitable student outcomes. Through the hard work of our staff and students, Woodburn has consistently maintained graduation rates higher than those of the State of Oregon," WSD Acting Superintendent Juan Larios said. PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Woodburn High School will transform from separate academies to a unified school in the fall of 2022.

"Now, 15 years later, Woodburn is once again engaged in high school reform in response to inequities for our students. The 2020 Office of Civil Rights compliance review found that the small schools hold a disproportionate enrollment of students by sex/gender, minority and English Learner status in Career and Technical Education programs when compared to the school's overall enrollment. There were also findings in other areas, including admissions, recruitment and site location."

In 2019, when Oregon Department of Education released the four-year cohort graduation rates, the overall average graduation rate in Oregon that past year was 78.7 percent, 2 percent higher than the previous year and 6.7-percent higher than 2013-14.

For the second straight year, Woodburn's graduation rate for all students was about 88.9 percent, up from 84.1 percent in 2015-16 and 84.5 percent in 2014-15.

Upward graduation trends set in after the academies were instituted, and it is widely believed that their smaller formats enabled educators to reach students more readily and effectively, and that quality of guidance paved way for significant, incremental increasing graduation percentages.

Given that, why change?

"It does seem counterintuitive when you look at the graduation rates," Cooper said.

But it is also complicated.

ODE data

The Oregon Legislature passed Measure 98, which provided funding focused on improvements in several areas: dropout prevention; Career Technical Education (CTE); college-level educational opportunities.

In fact, Measure 98 funding was instrumental in enabling Woodburn School District to erect a new wing with enhanced CTE facilities.

In recent years, just before the COVID-19 pandemic closures, ODE conducted a study within WSD, and the data suggested that there were some stereotypical views of inequities within the academies; one academy may be perceived as better than another. Moreover, those stereotypes were applied to students.PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - A task force has been working over the past year to reform the Woodburn High School system, moving it toward a unified school while keeping some of the positive elements the academy system produced over the past 15 years.

"It (the academies system) perpetuated a stereotypical group of the students going to the schools," Cooper explained.

The district established a task force to examine not only the ODE data, but to look for ways to maintain what has been successful about the academy system while also eliminating the stereotypes that apparently sprang from it.

"A task force was convened to address these findings, and earlier this year a new high school model was selected," Larios said. "The model brings the small schools back together, focusing on addressing issues of equity and access while maintaining close relationships with cohorts during 9th and 10th grades before focusing on individualized experiences for 11th and 12th graders through open access to courses, programs and pathways."

The task force met virtually and ultimately fashioned several potential formats of reform for the high school, including keeping the academy system but rebranding each academy to erase the stereotypes; developing a hybrid system; disassembling the academies and creating a unified school.

The WSD board elected to take the latter tack. But the trick within the task is this: if you break up the academies, how do you maintain what was good about them — especially the stellar graduation rates?

"Graduation rates were not the problem. But when we dug deeper, we did see that we have a lot of 9th grade students failing some classes," Cooper said. "And, when the students fail classes their freshman year, then you have to provide space in their schedule to take them over; doing extra to try to get students caught up."

Cooper said Measure 98 stipulations encourage the use of research and finding a correlation between students passing freshman year at higher percentages, thereby staying on track to graduate without having to turn back and relearn something to get it right.

Developing a scholastic relationship with educators early on is key to that end, and it was also something that the academies cultivated. Hopes are to sustain that element going forward in a unified school.

"We want to keep the relationships, but lose the stereotypes," Cooper said.

Reform moving forward

The task force working on the ongoing high school reforms is a disparate mix of school staff, community members, parents and students — a collage of ideas.

Cooper said the task force has also broken up into multiple smaller groups within with various charges, including discussion 9th and 10th grade instructions as opposed to 11th and 12th grades; collegiality, or bringing the schools together while keeping what's best from each; advising, counseling and support teams; student voices; parents and voices from the broader community.

One aspect of the work is the importance of keeping freshmen on track, and how the success of doing so significantly enhances their graduation rates.

In light of that, reform discussions have delved into the importance of preserving some of the smaller school advantages and not losing the ground that was gained with small schools. Cooper envisions incoming high school students being paired in a cohort and with teachers who will have their backs from the onset, maintaining freshman-class structures in small student-to-student and staff-to-student ratios, affording an environment more conducive to new student acclimation.

Overall, Cooper doesn't believe the transition back to a unified school to be an unwieldy one.PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Woodburn High School will operate as a unified school beginning fall term, 2022, after operating as an academy based institution for 15 years.

"It's not as big of a lift as it was when we moved to four smaller schools," she said. "That was a completely new thing when we did that.

"There are some things — like familiarity — that we don't want to lose about the small schools. That familiarity is a factor in keeping students from falling through the cracks. That's why we have such a good graduation rate."

Larios agreed.

"The new model is being designed to include some of the best aspects of small schools," Larios said. "This will include the small learning communities and strong relationships with peers, teachers and support teams, while addressing the unintentional barriers in place and creating an open structure for equitable access."

The superintendent believes the reform will open pathways for students by providing flexibility into the future — pathways and programs that will be more accessible for all students as the school continually improves.

"This will allow all students to explore, find and connect with their interests and passions so that all students graduate ready to pursue college, career option and success in life," he concluded.

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - A task force working to reform Woodburn High School focused on preserving the positive elements of the academy system while transitioning the school to a unified one to facilitate equity. The move back to a unified school begins fall term, 2022.


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