Three local education leaders opened up Thursday about the challenges facing Central Oregon schools, striking an optimistic tone about student achievement, graduation rates and collaborations between schools and local organizations.

“It’s that partnership we have with many of you in the room in funding, volunteerism, program development … the collective impact is huge,” Mike McIntosh, Redmond school superintendent, told Central Oregon business and organization leaders during a City Club of Central Oregon forum. “We’re here today to celebrate, as that collaborative effort has propelled us into success.”

McIntosh, along with Shay Mikalson, Bend-La Pine Schools superintendent, and Katie Condit, executive director of educational nonprofit Better Together, answered questions from locals.

The panel was quick to point out that Central Oregon’s eight school districts have a slightly higher four-year graduation rate than the rest of the state’s public high schools in the 2016-17 school year — 78 percent versus 77.

Central Oregon’s districts have had a combined 10 percent bump in graduation rates in the past three years.

“There’s been a mighty lift in terms of making sure those students are leaving us with those (career and academic) skills so those doors open for their next steps,” Mikalson said. “(There’s) still work to do … and obviously, it’s critical that each and every one of our students graduate, but we’re proud of our work.”

When the panel was asked about specific challenges, McIntosh said the difficulty of serving students’ emotional and educational needs keeps him awake at night. Mikalson said he was worried about achievement gaps in his schools, particularly regarding students of color and those who come from poverty.

“We can’t change the achievement gap instantly, but we can work as adults to change the opportunity gap,” he said. “What we need to do is continually find resources to remove barriers, especially for those most under-served students.”

Condit added that diverse voices were crucial to assisting students of color and students living in poverty.

“We cannot sit around the table as white people and try to solve problems for people of color or build systems to support them without inviting that voice to that leadership and decision-making table,” she said.

One audience member asked about assisting students with trauma. McIntosh said helping kids work through negative experiences as soon as possible is critical.

“It’s too late to start when they’re seniors. It’s too late when they’re freshmen. It’s too late to start when they’re kindergartners,” he said. “As we look at the conditions that kids are living in that create these adverse childhood experiences, we have learned we are most effective if we can address them early.”

Mikalson agreed, saying his district was attempting to be responsive and adaptable to students undergoing trauma.

“You can imagine if you’re homeless, if you’re worried about your next meal, if you’re dealing with a mental health crisis, if you’re dealing with abuse, those things are survival. And learning can take a backseat to that work,” he said.

Another topic the panel was asked about was how the local districts were spending money from the recently passed Measure 98, which called for the Legislature to budget $800 for each high school student for programs known to improve graduation rates. McIntosh and Mikalson mentioned graduation coaches, while the Redmond superintendent also mentioned funding groups that engage students like music programs, FFA (formerly known as Future Farmers of America) and athletics.

Condit gave a short speech before the question-and-answer session where she touted the success of Better Together, which creates workgroups like Early Learning and Wellness , Latino Success Initiative and Youth CareerConnect that bring together community members and local organizations to help students of all ages. She called upon the audience members to join in and use their resources.

“Find your role in this collective work, because there is a role for all of us in making sure young people thrive in Central Oregon,” Condit said,

Mikalson and McIntosh praised Better Together, with the former saying he wished more community members took initiative to help schools on their own accord.

“We don’t get asked very often, ‘What do you need?’ ” he said. “If you walk into a school and ask that question, you’ll be embraced, maybe hugged.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854;