Why Oregon's High School Graduate Rate Is Among the Worst

Jan 5, 2016

Matt Boring
Credit Jacob Lewin

More than one in four of Oregon's high school students don't graduate...or at least don't graduate on time.  The U.S. Department of Education ranks the state 47th, although that's up from 49th a year ago.

The first part in KLCC's series on this issue examines why the rate is so low and what a school in Corvallis is doing to help change that.

At Corvallis High School you'll find kids like Dylan Beyea.  Dylan struggled when he got here as a freshman.  In middle school he had no social life and was sick a lot, so making friends became a priority:

"We would always hang out. Then we'd start skipping class. It was like, I'm behind in my class so why should I go? I don't feel like I could get caught up in time to be able to pass, so what's the point in going?"

A study by the Chalkboard Project shows one quarter of Oregon students are chronically absent, and even more don't graduate from high school in four years:

"It's stunning to us to see the correlation with missing ten days or more and the impact to high school completion."

The Chalkboard Project's Dan Jamison.  John Tapogna, President of ECONorthwest, a consulting firm, sees a cultural connection between the high absenteeism rate and the low graduation rate. He says Oregon may not have what he calls a culture of completion:

"We are in the west.  It is sort of a live and let live environment."

If Oregon were a person, it would be a type B, not a type A.  States like Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana have higher graduation rates.  Yet Tapogna thinks Oregon offers a  better education than those states:

"The achievement scores that we see for example on national tests in eighth grade, where Oregon is solidly average, if you had to pick the average of average states. And yet follow those same kids four years into the future, you see us fall way to the bottom.  There's just a real disconnect there."

When he took over at Corvallis High School, which has  a relatively high number of disadvantaged kids, Principal Matt Boring brought a personal perspective to bear:

"I have a unique situation as a father. My daughter Emily is a sophomore at Yale University and my son Aaron is in the life skills program here at Corvallis High School, a junior. You have an Ivy Leaguer and a kid who can't read or write."

When he got here five years ago, Boring was appalled at the school's 70-percent graduation rate.  He focused on the kids who were struggling, partly by changing the schedules of his teachers:

"Putting the most passionate teachers in front of those kids. Educating not just the easy kids, the kids who come to school ready."

Trying not to short-change the more successful students, Boring makes sure his best teachers take on advanced placement classes as well as the neediest kids.  He also personally nabs underachievers in the hall,

"Hey! Let's talk about your 24-percent in American Lit,  how did you get it so low?"

Oregon's unique Latino situation also impacts our graduate rate.  A high percentage of Oregon Latinos arrived here in the nineties, mostly farm workers with little education and little English.  Their kids are now high school aged. Kids whose parents are poor and relatively uneducated are more likely to have problems in school. As with other districts, Corvallis has pressed hard to expand its English Language Learners programs:

"OK! Entonces que es....."

Partly due to ELL and acculturation, the Latino graduation rate has improved significantly and that is expected to continue, but that  will hardly solve all of our problems.  Dan Jamison of Chalkboard says the low  graduation rate cuts across all demographics:

"We have the poorest high school completion for white students probably in the nation."

But Dylan Beyea and his friends probably will graduate.  One of those teachers who now see a range of students showed confidence and lit a fire under them:

"We stayed every day after school, after-school tutoring, and I was like dang! I can do this. I know I can graduate."

Corvallis High School has gone from that 70-percent graduation rate to better than 85-percent.