There are many ways to judge a high school’s success — test scores, graduation rates — and most people wouldn’t consider pep rallies to be one of them. But for students at the resurgent Madras High School, where graduation rates have skyrocketed, the lively events are another sign of how the school’s culture has radically shifted in the last few years.

“Our assemblies now, you can see in the students, they’re excited and we engage everyone,” said senior Erika Olivera, 18. “But my freshman year — I don’t even want to remember this — I just remember sitting there and feeling like, ‘Ugh, this is going to be an hour.’”

“I think there’s more positive energy going around,” added senior Dylan Alger, 17. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel something different.”

Since co-principals H.D. Weddel and Mark Neffendorf took over at Madras High four years ago, graduation rates at the school have risen from being the lowest among major Central Oregon schools — 56.7 percent of students graduated in 2015 — to one of the highest, at 90.73 percent.

Both students and staff have noticed the dramatic changes at Madras, and they believe its due to an empathetic administrative culture that emphasizes not ignoring any at-risk student.

Weddel said he consistently hears from students whose families struggle with issues like poverty or addiction, making their academic success even more powerful. More than 95 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

“When our kids accomplish a high graduation rate, it’s different,” he said.

Weddel and Neffendorf have given Madras High a bump by emphasizing strong staff-student relationships that don’t allow at-risk students to fall through the cracks, and by fostering a positive culture by promoting school pride and encouraging students to join extracurricular sports and activities, they said.

Personalized help

Four years ago, Madras High began its Response To Intervention meetings, where staff members observe a different grade level of students each week and look for red flags that could keep students from graduating.

Counselor Stacey Bruce, who oversees the system, has a large spreadsheet with each student listed and a series of colored boxes next to each name. These boxes represent risk factors for students, such as being an English-language learner (which made up 16 percent of the 2018 senior class), low GPA or attendance, or even not participating in a sport or activity. If some of those corresponding boxes are red, that means the student needs one-on-one intervention with a counselor or liaison. Bruce said this method helps pinpoint exactly which students need help more accurately than in the past.

“(Previously), we’d just be scrolling through attendance, but sometimes those kids that aren’t here might be doing fine towards graduation,” she said. “They might need less intervention than the kid who’s here all the time … but they’re failing the classes because they’re not motivated, or they have other barriers.”

Students have noticed how much extra attention their peers receive.

“I think there’s more help going out to the students,” said senior Gabi Smith, 17. “Before … they weren’t as invested in the students as they are now. If someone’s grades are dropping, they’ll automatically catch it, and see if you need help.”

Staff members also make a concentrated effort to connect with students, including security guard, student liaison and multisport coach Butch David, a Warm Springs resident and Madras High graduate. He said it helps Native American students to have an adult who comes from the same community to be a sounding board and empathetic shoulder to lean on.

“I know a lot of the kids. I know their families, visit with them, and a lot of them will share with me what’s going on,” David said. “Instead of having a student kicked out of class … we talk to them. We find out something else is happening in the home or outside the school setting, and we try to get that resolved.”

Native American students, who make up 31 percent of Madras High’s population, saw a particularly high jump in graduation rates, from 38.8 percent to 81 percent in the past three years.

Teachers have also focused on building strong relationships with students, including science teacher Kathleen Glogau, who just began teaching at Madras this year.

“If they see that you don’t care about them, they’re not going to be that interested in learning,” she said.

Other staff members attributed the school’s recent success to a crackdown on bad behavior. Business teacher Jerry Shaw, who was a security guard at the school until last year, said he and his team began enforcing rules about skipping classes more consistently in the last few years, and students quickly caught on.

“It’s funny, the majority of (students), once we realized we were going to hold them accountable, they started going to class,” he said. “Within our second year, the norm was not to be in the halls, the norm was to be in class.”

Another factor for Madras’ rising graduation rates is some students leaving for Bridges Career and Technical High School, which opened in 2016. Bridges is an alternative school that serves 109 students, but teens choose to attend it for a more personalized, intimate class experience, instead of being forced there due to bad grades or behavior, Weddel said. Bridges’ four-year graduation rate last school year was 49.3 percent, but Weddel said it’s typical for students in alternative schools to take longer than four years to earn a diploma.

Students buy into new culture

Another reason for Madras’ culture shift, according to staff and students, is the increased participation in extracurricular sports and activities. Although it might not seem like joining the school play or swim team would boost grades, Evan Brown, the school’s athletic director and boy’s basketball head coach, said there is a connection.

“It doesn’t help with test scores, but it hooks them into school,” he said. “Once they get hooked into school, then they have a reason to be here. They have that ownership with the school.”

When Brown first began coaching at Madras in 1992, he said only about 24 percent of students were involved in one of the White Buffaloes’ athletic teams or an activity. This fall, about 35 percent of students participated in a sport, and there’s also been increased participation in music, drama, ROTC and other groups, he said.

David, who coaches junior varsity football and girls basketball, said there’s been an increase of teachers and staff at Madras who also coach, which helps foster connection with student-athletes who might be struggling. Brown agreed that having a coach to confide in can help students off the court or field.

“Our coaching staff really tries to get to know our kids as individuals, and also some of the challenges they face,” he said. “It gives them a go-to person in the school to say, ‘Man, I’m struggling,’”

Beyond sports and clubs, the vibe around Madras High has become much more optimistic about the future than in recent years, according to student body president Annie Whipple.

“When I was a freshman, the (seniors) just weren’t very motivated. Now, it’s a total 180,” Whipple, 17, said.

Still, the two leaders steering the ship, Neffendorf and Weddel, plan to retire once the school year ends, both at the age of 62. Weddel, a former principal at Bend High School, said his experience at Madras was so positive that despite promising a two-year commitment, he and his partner stayed four.

“This is my 40th year of education, and I think I’ve learned more in the last four years than the previous 36,” Weddel said.

Regardless, current students said their time in high school will be remembered fondly.

“When I talk to people in my grade … they get excited about graduating and going out and doing new things, but they’re excited that this is always going be home, too,” said Olivera, “We’re all going to be here, as Buffaloes.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854,