By Kailey Fisicaro

The Bulletin

At Madras High School, the number of freshmen on track to graduate has surged.

In the 2013-14 school year, less than half of freshmen had six credits by the end of the school year, or 25 percent of what a student needs to earn a diploma. In the 2014-15 school year, the number crept up to 50 percent. Then, in 2015-16, the year former Bend High School principals Mark Neffendorf and H.D. Weddel came to Madras High, the number of freshmen on track leapt to 78 percent. Last year, it rose again to 82 percent.

“It’s not magic,” ­Weddel said Thursday, using the adage “knowing and doing are two different things.”

Weddel, a former high school coach and chaplain for the Oregon State University football team, shared an analogy: Most people know the basics of what they need to do to be healthy, but it’s a question of whether they actually do it.

Applying successful techniques in a school is similar, according to Weddel and Neffendorf, who have worked in education for 39 and 40 years, respectively.

“Most people know what to do; it’s kind of staying with it,” Weddel said of seeing the freshmen on-track rates improve so greatly.

Neffendorf, also a former coach, said the two took some of that sports mentality, of how to build a team, to Madras High.

“When we started here two years ago and we saw the low graduation rate, we knew from being ex-coaches and having to build programs, you go down to your lowest level and start working with them to build what will be your ‘varsity,’” Neffendorf said.

Weddel and Neffendorf knew getting freshmen to feel at home at Madras High and invested in their education from the beginning would result in higher graduation rates. According to the co-principals, research shows there is an 80 percent correlation between freshmen on-track rates and graduation rates.

Madras High School had a graduation rate of 60 percent in 2015-16, up from 56 percent the school year before that. The statewide graduation rate in 2015-16 was 74.83 percent. Graduates of the class of 2016 were juniors when Neffendorf and Weddel came to Madras High. Rates from 2017 won’t be out until January.

Neffendorf and Weddel have honed a focus at Madras High on building relationships with students to help them be successful. The two insist the Madras High staff was dedicated to this before they joined the school, but when Neffendorf and Weddel came, they started drilling in a “formula” about it.

“Relationships build trust and if you trust somebody, you’re willing to take a risk,” Weddel said. “All new learning is risk-taking — it’s a risk because you might fail.”

When teachers build relationships with students, the pupils are more willing to try, the two said.

In practice, the relationship-building ranges from calling out kids’ names and greeting them in the hallways to checking in how they are doing one-on-one. And perhaps most importantly, teachers and staff are constantly working to identify the kids who are struggling and need those relationships most.

“You have to identify the kids who have the least amount of trust,” Neffendorf said. “You have to put in extra time with those kids.”

Beyond talking to teachers about implementing this relationship-building strategy, though, the co-principals modeled the behavior around campus, including by visiting classrooms often.

For Andrew Jensen, a first-year math teacher last year at Madras High, balancing the logistics of teaching with relationship-building was difficult, but more than that, adjusting to teaching a new student population was the biggest challenge. Compared with the schools where ­Jensen completed student-teaching — Bend High and High Desert Middle schools in Bend — Madras High is highly diverse.

Madras High School is 34 percent Native American or Alaska native, 38 percent Hispanic or Latino, 26 percent white, 1 percent African American and 1 percent multiracial, according to data from the Oregon Department of Education.

“They are coming from such diverse backgrounds,” Jensen said. “Adjusting to the culture was the hardest part, and not in a negative way.”

Jensen has enjoyed getting to know his students and learning how to best communicate with them, but in the beginning, many students pushed back, avoiding eye contact, ignoring his interactions or even getting in his face.

“I wasn’t used to coming to school with kids who haven’t eaten dinner the night before or whose parents just died in a car crash,” Jensen said. “You really have to connect with these kids.”

Even when students pushed back, Jensen persisted in interacting with students, and it paid off. Students who came off as spiteful last year were stopping by Jensen’s door to his classroom this week at the start of school, lamenting at the fact they aren’t his students again this year. Jensen, who’s now coaching cross-country, said he thinks the simple act of returning to Madras High for a second year even made an impression on students.

“I guess I just never gave up on these kids,” Jensen said. “I think they’re so used to that.”

Jensen looked to fellow teachers and assistant principals for support last year, but especially to Weddel and ­Neffendorf, who he said were the driving force behind the positive change.

“They do so much,” Jensen said. “That’s who they are. They’re all about relationships. You see it with them and the staff and students.”

In Madras, the rise in the number of freshmen on track to graduate and the bump in the graduation rate aren’t just data, according to the co-principals. Research shows when teens don’t graduate, their chances of going to prison are higher, their life spans are shorter and they’re likely to make less money, Weddel said.

“It’s an emotional, energy-giving statistic for us because it’s not just about graphs, it’s about lives,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,