This opinion piece first appeared in The Oregonian
The students of Eagle Point High School don’t need to be told that graduation is achieved through hard work and dedication. More than three-quarters of all Eagle Point School District students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Yet, thanks to a partnership between their school district, the state of Oregon, AllCare Health, and the United Way, 93% of students in Eagle Point’s graduation coach program are on track to graduate this spring. The high school’s overall graduation rate hit 89% in 2019, up 16 percentage points since 2014.
Each year, when the Oregon Department of Education releases graduation statistics, it can be easy to forget that each incremental increase represents the persistence and resilience of one more student crossing the commencement stage with a diploma in hand.
Last school year, we had 600 new reasons for hope and optimism in Oregon –– 600 more students, each unique in their own talents and skills, often overcoming difficult life experiences, walking towards a promising future.
Because of the persistence of those students and their families, the ongoing commitment of their educators
, and the efforts of community partners to expand access to opportunities, Oregon has reached a new milestone. For the first time, eight of 10 Oregon students graduated high school in four years, an 8 percentage point increase over the last five years.
This is a moment to celebrate our students, our public schools and the annual improvements in graduation outcomes we’ve seen over the past decade.
Since 2014, the number of economically-disadvantaged students graduating increased 10 points. The number of graduating Latinx students grew by 11 points. While no single factor can account for these increases, Oregon schools are doing more to build welcoming and inclusive relationships with students and their families, be responsive to the cultural assets of Oregon’s increasingly diverse student population, meet the academic, social-emotional, and health needs of individual students
, and expand student skills through relevant and hands-on curriculum.
We have also targeted investments to improve academic achievement among specific student populations. In 2015, Oregon dedicated $12.5 million per biennium toward programs for bilingual students. Graduation rates have increased 9 percentage points in the past four years, including a 4.4 point jump last year.
In 2015, we also funded grants to partnerships between tribes and school districts to support regular attendance among tribal students. As chronic absenteeism has dropped in many tribal communities, graduation rates have also increased over 14 percentage points in the last five years.
In 2016, Oregon established a comprehensive plan to improve outcomes for black youth, from early childhood to higher education. Since 2014, the number of African-American students graduating has grown over 10 percentage points.
In 2017, with the passage of the High School Success initiative, Ballot Measure 98, we expanded funding for career and technical education, college-level coursework and drop-out prevention. Graduation rates today for students enrolled in career and technical education classes far exceed the state average.
Yet there is still more to be done. Last year, we worked to pass the Student Success Act, a historic $2 billion-per-biennium investment in our educational system. New investments in our underserved students, informed by community input, will continue to improve student outcomes and help close the opportunity gaps that have too long been reflected in Oregon’s graduation rates.
Every year, we ask our students to never give up, to strive and persist until they earn a diploma. Until every student in Oregon has that opportunity, we won’t stop working either.