Oregon Schools On The Road To Majority Minority

Jul 13, 2016

Credit Lincoln County School District

Twenty years from now, based on existing trends, Oregon public schools will be majority minority. Oregon still has a ten-point achievement gap between minorities and whites, and as students of color become a larger part of the school population, closing that gap becomes more important.

KLCC's Jacob Lewin reports on an Oregon high school and a state university where that problem is being successfully addressed:

The graduation rate at Newport High School is 84% for Latinos and 76% for whites. But principal Jon Zagel cares less about standing the achievement gap on its head, than about the growing percentage of Latinos who are graduating:

"We're really proud about the achievement gap closing but we didn't concentrate on a certain sub-group. Every kid that walks through our door gets our 100-percent concern and we help them as much as we can. Our Spanish-speaking students, they are just part of us.  I don't even consider them a sub-group."

Parent Anna Laura Hernandez says getting clear progress reports on her kids empowers her:

"They open the doors to the parents."

Administrators make it a point to literally get Latino parents into school for events including theater, sports, and school band concerts.

(Band plays)

Principal Zagel says counselors help kids with social problems, big and small:

"Some of our Spanish-speaking students struggle with how to do things in our world from 'I need a prom dress' to 'I need a little bit of extra help studying for the SAT. And we have amazing staff members that help them with non-school stuff so they can be successful at school."

Latino students in Newport say it's all about the support:

"My names is Chelsea Alatriste. I am 16. I am an I.B. diploma candidate. I want to pursue a career either as a criminal defense lawyer or as an immigration lawyer. I think that the biggest part is the sense of community that our school has."

"My names is Galilea Maldonado. I'm 17. I'm also an I.B. diploma candidate and I aspire to be a nurse practitioner.  I also believe that they're such a success because Newport is a small town and that allows us to get to know each other a lot more. There's more attention towards the students because the classes are relatively small."

There is one other essential piece to this puzzle. When Latinos came to Newport for jobs in the hospitality and fish processing industries they didn't expect that they or their children would stay.  Now they do, and that's changed their attitudes.  Alejandra Ponciano is a Newport High parent:

"I got here in 1993 and since then our community is growing and growing.  Many parents just came here to work and put those kids to work.  Now parents are involved with the dreams, or what their kids want to be."

(Sound of bells chiming)

Here on the leafy campus of Western Oregon University,  you'll see a lot of diversity. Unlike Newport High, Associate Provost Dave McDonald says his school has intentionally set out to close the achievement gap:

"The population that was at greatest risk of being left behind was, in fact, the Latino population. It was the fastest-growing, already had a sizable number of Latinos in Oregon, and had among the lowest achievement rates in terms of high school completion, college entry, college completion."

Like   Newport High, Western tries to address the whole student:

"Our programs provide wrap-around services that start with the academics but address the other issues too, the social issues, the adjustment issues, the value and benefit of having an engaged family. Often though the family is threatened by the separation that occurs when the student goes off to college."

Members of the staff are bilingual, not so much for the benefit of the students, but for the parents. There is much more student involvement with advisors. In fact, it's required.  Half the students, like Vanessa Sandoval, are the first in their family to go to college:

"It's giving you advice that you wouldn't find anywhere else and that is a huge piece especially if no one you knew went to college and so you are doing this by yourself and you are trying to learn things that it feels like everyone else already knows."

And student Javier García:

"Western was the only school that actually believed in me.  I didn't even believe in myself. Even the first year being here,  I was telling my adviser, I'll be here for a couple of months, probably drop out, and I'm still here, which is really nice."

While courting Latinos has helped W-O-U stabilize enrollment, the school still has its work cut out. While the Latino graduation rate is ten points higher than the white rate, only about 55-percent do graduate.

Support for KLCC's year-long education series is provided by the Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon.

Jacob Lewin's Reporter's Notebook:

Despite our almost-worst-in-the nation high school graduation rates and our relatively low funding for schools and state universities, I came away from this story feeling optimistic about the future of education in Oregon. I had found two more places where teachers and administrators were doing a lot with little in the way of resources.

For me, one of the delights of being a reporter is visiting communities or parts of communities that are new to me.  In Newport, it was refreshing to hear students tell me that they had experienced no discrimination, no bullying, and that they had each other's backs, no matter what their  ethnicity.

An interesting note from Newport on immigrant settlement patterns:  The first parent I talked to, Anna Laura Hernandez, told me that she came from the Mexican state of Puebla.  The second parent, Alejandra Ponciano, also came from Puebla, although they did not meet until coming to Newport. Later in the day, student Chelsea Alatriste told me she too came from Puebla, that one of the parents that I talked to was her godmother, and that lots of other folks from Puebla were in Newport. Sunny Puebla, with its volcanoes, colonial architecture and lack of coastline, is about as different from Newport as a place can be, but a network developed between the two communities.

Minority groups make up 37-percent of Oregon public school students. The Oregon Department of Education expects that to reach 50-percent in about twenty years. Currently, 23-percent are Latino, five-percent are Asian or Pacific Islander,  five-percent are multi-racial, and about two-percent each are African-American or Native American. Asians, by the way, have much higher graduation rate than the state average. Every non-white group in Oregon has a higher percentage of kids than whites. That's because the number of  baby boomers in Oregon is relatively high and baby boomers are more likely to be white.  The birth rate for Latinos is higher than that of whites, although it's been declining.

The parents in Newport who told me about the change in attitudes by Latino adults made a big impression and it was a cause of optimism.  They had come to Newport in the nineties, a decade when the number of Mexican-Americans in Oregon doubled.  Immigration  from Mexico came to a stop in recent years.  In the eighties, nineties, and to some extent in the 00's, many immigrants thought they would stay in Oregon temporarily and return to Mexico.  In recent years, there is a much greater tendency to permanent settlement.  They found a home here.  At the same time, increased border security has made it difficult to go back and then come here again temporarily.  It is ironic that tougher border security is one reason that many undocumented Mexican-Americans have stayed here.

The change to permanent residency has fostered a change in attitudes toward education.  Some parents who did not want their kids to even think about college, but wanted them to work and help support the family--think of the movie "Stand and Deliver"--have now made a good education for their kids a priority.

Speaking of communities that had been unknown to me, except for passing through on 99W, I had never visited Monmouth before my trip to Western Oregon University.  It is a charming town with a lovely campus.  It was also obvious that what had worked in Newport--dealing with "the whole student" instead of just academics, was working in Monmouth. The Latino family dynamic was brought home to me when student Javier García told me that his big brother had died when he was a senior in high school. He wanted to stay close to home (Newberg) in case another emergency arose and he needed to be with his mom.

I was suprised that the six-year graduation rate at W-O-U was only about 50-percent.  It was also surprised that that the graduation rates at U-of-O and O-S-U were just in the sixties.  However a state report indicates that 90-percent of those who don't graduate from state universities within six years will get a college degree from some school within 12 years.

Lastly, for those who are not into education jargon, the I.B. diploma that the students in the story were talking about stands for International Baccalaureate.