Oregon Graduation Rates Plagued by Widespread Inequity

Roosevelt High School graduation at Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum Sunday June 5, 2016. Photo by Portland Public Schools.

With the third worst graduation rate in the country, a pattern of low academic success, and subpar school funding, Oregon’s commitment to its public school students has been questionable throughout the state’s recent history. Although many factors contribute to a student’s inability to complete secondary education, a lack of government and corporate support can cut through all students’ chances at greater success. There is no single root cause of dropout rates, but systemic racial oppression and discrimination can inhibit a person beyond the scope of their control.

In a 2016 census, only 2.1% of Oregon’s population was made up of African Americans, while 87.4% of the state was white. This leads to a heightened prioritization of white students, with “Caucasian” students in Oregon graduating at a rate of 76.6%, while African American and Hispanic students graduate at rates of 66% and 69.4%, respectively. Oregon’s dismal statistics affect all students. It as is housing the 30th worst funded state in the country, spending $9,183 per student compared to the $10,700 average, providing more funding to low poverty districts than high ones, and receiving an ‘F’ grade in The Effort Index for having a high ratio between gross state product and spending on education. The Education Law Center and Rutgers Graduate School of Education conduct a yearly “National Report Card” on individual states’ school funding, assessing support of low income students, teacher wages, and other aspects that affect both the students and employees of a public district. Oregon received no grade above a ‘C’ on the report card, and never scored in the upper half of states in evaluations of Distribution, Effort, Funding Level, and Coverage.

Even in Portland, which houses 15.6% of the state’s population and where citizens are one and a half times more likely to have a college degree, inequitable education persists. Lincoln High School consistently achieves the highest graduation rates in PPS, with a rate of 94% in 2016. Conversely, Roosevelt High School is known for its lacking success, with a 65% graduation rate in 2016. Although it is easy to draw the conclusion that Lincoln students are more driven, intelligent, or hardworking, the true demographics of the schools may reveal why students are succeeding or failing in this manner. Located in the West Hills, Lincoln is known for its affluence and primarily homogeneous population. Racial minorities make up 26% of the school, and a mere 10% of the students are economically disadvantaged, whereas 73% of Roosevelt students are people of color and 70% are economically disadvantaged. Even though Lincoln’s grad rate is strikingly high, the majority of its students are granted with more private resources and support systems than students at Roosevelt. Only 16.3% of disadvantaged students are proficient at Roosevelt, and 67 students dropped out in 2016.

The historical and current conflicts between race and success affect all students in some way, be it positive or negative. “You have to look at who’s not graduating” says Jo LaFountaine, Senior Director of High Schools at PPS. Disadvantaged students are 16.9% less proficient than non-disadvantaged students at Lincoln, but this gap is common.

A Roosevelt student awaits her diploma at the 2016 graduation ceremony. Roosevelt has the lowest graduation rate of the nine major PPS high schools, with 65% of their senior class graduating in 2016. Photo by Portland Public Schools.

High-performing schools often oppose putting resources into increasing success rates because of current achievement levels, and high socioeconomic status (SES) schools are given less funding by the government to support their low SES students, creating an even larger rift between students of high and low economic status. “Knowing how to meet the needs of all kids is a systemic issue,” says LaFountaine. The Roosevelt school and community has implemented systematic support to meet the needs of all its students, working at the individual level with at-risk students to ensure that they graduate. Because pathways for success are primarily set out for students from privileged backgrounds, it can be difficult to approach all students individually in a way that can meet their needs and navigates the nuances of the situation. Often, high school students are advertised to with opportunities to earn college credits and achievements prematurely, seen as an exciting and beneficial opportunity. However, for students who are placed in a predisposition of relative disadvantage, already not receiving the support they need, these advances can come off as less of an opportunity and more as a frightening stress factor, potentially leading to diminished interest in academia and withdrawal from the school.

The one-track prioritization of economically advantaged white students continues the cycle of oppression that leads to a massive gap in success between groups. “You have a system that is designed to serve the majority of the students,” says LaFountaine. This leads to the continual lack of needs being met. Once a student drops out, the school’s ability to persuade them to return rapidly declines. Some schools do more than others to find students who dropped out, says LaFountaine, and asking a student to return a week versus a year after they drop out has a very different result. “There’s an inadvertent message that gets sent [to the student]” says LaFountaine, and making sure the student knows there is a community that supports them is key to their return. A jump in graduation rates is expected for Roosevelt in the report coming out early this year, indicating the success of the school’s methods.

Beyond Roosevelt, Oregon voters in the 2016 election passed Measure 98, the High School Success Fund, in order to mitigate chronic absenteeism, increase graduation rates, and provide more Career and Technical Education opportunities. The measure is currently undergoing its two year trial, pledging $800 per high school student to meet the bill’s goals. It also ensures that all high schools have college-level courses, which should increase equity in class variability throughout the state. Through Measure 98, PPS employees and community members have created a Four Year Plan for all district high schools. Four of the six plan components are required under Measure 98, and all aspects of the plan are focused on student success. Lacking proficiency in kindergarten decreases chances of graduation in high school, and a 9th grader failing one class has a 70% chance of graduating. The Four Year Plan takes these facts into account, greatly increasing support and guidance for 9th graders.

One of the key components of the plan aims to better prepare students for postsecondary success. PPS partners with All Hands Raised, a non-profit that compiles student data in districts throughout Oregon to help schools increase racial equity. All Hands Raised is tracking seniors from the nine PPS high schools for two years after graduation in order to see if the district is appropriately preparing their students for postsecondary education. LaFountaine hopes these reports can answer the question: “Is the impact the right impact, are we really giving students what they need?” Many Oregon residents and legislators hope to see Measure 98’s continued success, but because corporate tax Measure 97 failed to pass, concerns about funding for the bill are growing. Measure 98 does not increase taxes, and funding will be lowered if state revenues do not increase by $1.5 billion in the next budget period, which is not expected. Nonetheless, the measure is already helping students across the state, and will hopefully increase graduation rates to pull Oregon out of its low-achieving norms.

However, the steps being taken to create positive change cannot eliminate the negative effects Oregon’s subpar education system has on its students. Raven Coffin (11), a former Franklin student, was dropped from the school system due to the 10 day absence policy. Coffin had been struggling with mental illness and a two hour commute to school, often leading her to fake illness and stay home from school. “It was the attendance staff who called my dad. They just told him I couldn’t go anymore… my family and I didn’t know what to do at all,” Coffin says. She attempted two more high schools after Franklin, but faced with harassment and continual mental health and home problems, she did not stay at either school. Coffin was told about Rosemary Anderson High School, an alternative school for students who have struggled in the public school system, and enrolled. “It’s an amazing school,” says Coffin, who is now on track to graduate in the spring of 2019.
Guadalupe Guerrero, PPS’s recently appointed superintendent, is determined to close the graduation gap in Portland high schools. “There’s no reason why those outcomes can’t be more successful,” he says, primarily targeting the low senior workload that can cause upperclassmen to lose motivation or interest. Guerrero said little to specify the symptoms affecting certain cohorts that cause the gap in graduation rates, but he is still determined to close them.

The district has recognized its faults in ensuring graduation and is beginning to work towards greater student success. Although many Oregon schools have surpassed PPS in student support and success, all districts are expected to benefit from Measure 98’s pledge to high schoolers. Although working against systemic oppression is indeed challenging, success should follow if dedication prevails. LaFountaine is confident that change will come. “I really believe we’re [going to] see more progress, I really do. I believe it with all my heart,” he said.

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