Staff, administration, students discuss what's working at WL-WV School District

SPOKESMAN FILE PHOTO - Wilsonville High School finished No. 2 in the state for the highest percentage of students graduated in four years. Not only has the West Linn-Wilsonville School District exceeded state averages for four-year graduation rates, but West Linn High School and Wilsonville High School took the top two spots for the highest graduation rates in Oregon in recently released statistics.

The state's graduation rate data released Jan. 25 showed WLHS at No. 1, having graduated 97.19 percent of its students on time in 2016-17 and WHS in a close second with 96.25 percent. The WL-WV School District is roughly 16 percentage points higher than Oregon's average.

So how exactly are these two large schools managing to get students across the finish line ahead of the rest of the state?

"It's paying attention to the programs for all, but also giving very specific attention to each student," said Barb Soisson, WL-WV assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. "It's also the collective work of our principals, teachers, counselors and specialists in looking at our programs and classes every year — (classes) that will prompt graduation and engage students — so (students) know (they're) working toward something."

Soisson notes that the importance of student engagement and confidence students have about themselves as learners starts back in primary school.

"We have strong leadership in our schools. It's what happens daily from when the child is a kindergartener that builds to the graduation rate," Soisson said. "We are fortunate we have teachers and leaders who stay in our district so there's a steadiness there."

Since 2011-12, the overall graduation rate for the district has steadily climbed, but for students with IEP's — special education students — and English language learners, creating an inclusive environment in classrooms has increased their graduation rates as well.

"Our district goal is to have rigorous, challenging learning for all students and to eliminate gaps," said Soisson, adding that over the last seven years the graduation rate for students with IEPs has increased by about 20 percentage points.

Resources yield measurable results

Many students and staffers point to the district's enhanced educational resources as a reason for the successful graduation rate.

"We are incredibly grateful that we pass bonds and we have the resources we have," Wilsonville High School Principal Dan Schumaker said. "I know our kids are grateful and they do not take it for granted, but the real work continues to be around relationships between teachers and kids."

While WHS sophomore Alyson Johnston and WHS senior Brandon Kyung may be at different points in their high school careers, both say they are prepared to graduate on time and have been supported by staff every step of the way.

"Wilsonville High School and the West Linn-Wilsonville School District has some fantastic teachers and many of them have helped me grow as a student and find a direction academically," Kyung wrote in an email. He added that the access to resources has helped prepare him for college. "This includes the wide variety of AP classes that this school offers. Additionally, I had access to many specific resources such as chemicals and scientific instruments."

As a sophomore, Johnston not only credits teachers for their hands-on effort, but the school's counselors as well. While there are only four counselors for about 1,200 students, she said they manage to address each individual's needs, making sure students are on the right track and are prepared for life after graduation.

"The sophomore college night I attended a few weeks ago was super informative and interesting. Both my parents and I learned new information that will be useful when I get closer to graduating," Johnston said. "My counselors and teachers are preparing our class to think about college as well as forecasting for junior year. ... I think that having strong relationships with teachers and counselors are extremely important in graduating on time."

And that end goal is definitely what WHS counselors try to achieve.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - The counseling department at Wilsonville High School makes sure they are visible to the student body and are involved with school activities.Counselor Alyson Leatherman said that with the great administration support, it allows counselors to actually focus on being counselors instead of potentially being tasked with unrelated work as they must at some school districts. She also added that WHS is large enough where students are provided with ample opportunities but small enough so counselors can have meaningful relationships with their students.

"(We) get in front of students in the classroom as often as (we) can," said Leatherman, adding that counselors are visible around school and are involved in several school clubs or activities. They don't just sit in their office. "We (also) do a lot of evening programming for students and families so it kind of starts out here."

But that's just the big picture. Leatherman said the counselors then connect with students in much smaller groups and start working closely with students as soon as they enter high school by means of checking in, holding forecasting fairs, scholarship workshops and more.

Leatherman said she hopes that by having positive moments in front of large groups of students, they will feel more comfortable and trust the counselors more when something serious might be going on.

Targeting focus where the need is

"There's so much that can impact a student's school experience," Leatherman said. "If they could come in and (say), 'My home life is really hard. I don't have a quiet, safe place to do homework because I have 5,000 brothers and sisters, and my dad's an alcoholic. What do I do?' If we can help them figure that out, that's going to help them pass their classes; that's going to help them graduate."

And as far as students who aren't graduating, both Leatherman and counselor Lucia Meza said sometimes students move and no matter how relentless the counseling department searches, they cannot track them down.

"It's not like they make it to April and they don't finish. The kids who didn't graduate, something happened maybe in junior year or sophomore year that they just didn't continue for one reason or another," Leatherman said. "After 10 days, they have to be withdrawn for non-attendance and if we never get a records request for another school, they count as our drop out. So it's not like kids come into our office and say 'I'm dropping out.' It's usually something happens (quietly)."

Meza said if the students are with them senior year, they usually can get everyone across the finish line, even if it takes the summer after graduation or an additional year.

Meza also added that in the last couple years, they have been more intentional as a school with providing materials in other languages to increase participation from various subgroups of students and have recently spent time reaching out to high schoolers who will be first generation college students to give them extra support.

"Students need to know we care," Meza said. "We can try to teach them pre-calculus and world history and Japanese all we want but the learning really happens when they know the adults around them care."

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: CLARA HOWELL - Wilsonville High School Principal Dan Schumaker credits the successful graduation rate to teachers, counselors, the community and students.Exceptional communities grow exceptional students

The Wilsonville and West Linn community support is also an aspect that is thriving, Schumaker and Soisson note.

"There's something about the community of West Linn and Wilsonville and families' commitment to our schools. It makes a huge difference," Soisson said. "We have high degrees of participation in school and high degrees of parents and families giving a lot to their schools."

Soisson added that it's not just what happens in school that increases student success, it's the community's, Schumaker agreed.

"We absolutely believe that if a kid isn't doing well, early intervention has really helped up as we move forward. Usually our counselors are the first to start that process; it's our counselors, our teachers and parents, and that triangle has to be complete," said Schumaker, adding that success follows when students believe they will succeed. "We don't have any kids that come in and go, 'I don't want to do well this year,' they all want to be successful. Sometimes it's just a matter of making sure that we line up that support and make sure we're all on the same page."

Wilsonville Spokesman reporter Clara Howell can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 503-636-1281 ext. 313.

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