By Tyler Leeds

The Bulletin

Bend-La Pine Schools and the Jefferson County School District made some of the most impressive gains in graduation rates in the state, according to a report released today by the Oregon Department of Education.

Bend-La Pine Schools’ four-year graduation rate jumped 10 percent over the past three school years to 78.6 percent.

During this period, there was especially strong growth at Bend and Mountain View high schools, which posted gains of 11.5 and 14.2 percent respectively, according to the report. Jefferson County’s Madras High School, which hosts one of the state’s most disadvantaged student populations, reportedly posted a 10 percent gain over that three-year period.

Across the state, growth was reported to be less bullish, edging up to 68.7 percent from 68.4 the previous academic year. District-level data are adjusted to account for students who have transferred high schools.

Madras High School Principal Sarah Braman-Smith credits much of the growth at her school to a federal School Improvement Grant that brought around $1 million in additional funding each year for the three previous school years.

“We were able to make a lot of comprehensive changes to the school and had an increased focus on individualized instruction,” Braman-Smith said. “Students had access to extra workshops that targeted support at the level they needed it at.”

Braman-Smith expressed concern over the gap between what Madras High was able to offer last year with the extra money and what is available to students this year, now that the program has ended.

“The biggest cut has been to staff, which means class sizes will go up and the amount of individualized attention will go down,” Braman-Smith said. “For all learners, having one-on-one staff members supporting them makes a big difference. Last year, there was such great energy in the school, and I’m worried that is less the case this year.”

Bend-La Pine Schools Superintendent Ron Wilkinson credited part of the success in his district to changes in graduation requirements. This year’s report represents the first cohort where students were required to demonstrate writing skills to earn a diploma, a requirement which comes in addition to a reading skills requirement that was instituted one year prior.

“There is an increased focus on individual students’ skills now,” said Wilkinson. “It’s a little ironic, but the added requirements have forced us to focus more on each student’s ability and not just to monitor their credits. We now have a better sense of what is holding each student back.”

In addition to tracking the four-year graduation rate, the state also tracks a five-year rate, which is attached to Gov. John Kitzhaber’s 40-40-20 goal for 2025. This plan aims to get 40 percent of the state’s high school students through four-year college, another 40 percent through community college or technical school and the remaining 20 percent through high school within five years.

“I like to call it the 100-80-40 plan,” Wilkinson said, referencing the fact that 100 percent of high schoolers would have to graduate to meet the goal. “Obviously, anything that says 100 percent is not realistic, but there are things we can do to continue to make gains.”

One of the biggest challenges to raising graduation rates, Wilkinson pointed out, is class sizes.

“In Bend-La Pine, staffing is a concern as high school class sizes have grown,” he said. “Additionally, counselors play a big part in getting kids to graduation. We’ve hung on to ours, while other districts have made cuts, but it’s still tight.”

To make the goal more attainable, Wilkinson suggested setting up different tiers of high school degrees.

The higher tier, as with the current diploma, would be geared toward four-year college admission, but with more requirements based on what college admissions departments want to see.

The lower tier, which does not currently exist, would focus on students hoping to enter a trade or community college.

Districts do currently offer their own differentiated diplomas, but they are not counted differently by the state.

“If the goal is not to have every student go on to a four-year degree, we shouldn’t have the high school degree pegged to that goal,” Wilkinson said.

Both the Crook County and Redmond school districts offer programs where students remain enrolled for a fifth year, attending free classes at Central Oregon Community College instead of their high schools. Due to this program, top students in each district are not counted in the four-year graduation statistic, resulting in a lower graduation rate.

“Our four-year rate is diminished greatly by the amount of kids that don’t graduate in that cohort, but we pick those kids up again in the five-year graduation cohort,” said Mike McIntosh, Redmond’s superintendent. “But what this program does do is set up kids to graduate college, which helps with the 40-40-20 goal.”

In Redmond, for example, the four-year graduation rate is 48 percent while the five-year is 70 percent.

“Redmond is a district that values education, but there’s still a lot we can do to improve,” McIntosh said.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160,