Can Oregon Schools Reboot? An Optimistic Look At Southern Oregon’s High Schools
The numbers are still not good.
For the past decade, public schools in Oregon have been measured as some of the worst—if not the very worst—in the country. While statewide test scores for reading and math hover just below national averages, graduation rates scrap the very bottom of the barrel. Nationwide, 82 percent of teenagers graduate high school on time, but in Oregon that number has been stuck around 70 percent for the past several years. In spite of what some media outlets called a two percent “jump” in graduation rates last year, statewide on-time graduation rates are still only around 72 percent—and one of the worst in the country.
Moreover, according to recent studies about the rate of ninth-graders in the 2009-2010 school year that graduated four years later, Albany, Oregon held the lowest graduation rate in the nation; just 51.3 percent. And, Albany isn’t isolated: Among the 25 worst rates, Oregon cities hold five spots, more than any other states, including Grants Pass at tenth worst (68.6 percent) and Medford at ninth (68.1 percent).
But although the broad strokes painted by the data are discouraging, the individual improvements within specific school districts in southern Oregon tell a different story, one infused with much more optimism.
Two years ago, Dr. Brian Shumate stepped into the role as Superintendent for the Medford School District. He came with a strong resume and record of success. But he also arrived in the midst of chaos: The previous academic year had been hollowed out by a prolonged teacher strike, and the decade-long superintendent retired. With a good deal of confidence—and unanimous support from the school board—Shumate entered office with optimism and confidence that a cynic could have categorized as whistling through the graveyard. Shumate declared that the Medford schools would “have a place for every kid” and challenged his staff to make Medford the “premier school district in the State of Oregon.”
Two years later, Shumate has not quite achieved those grand goals, but he has pushed dramatic successes for the school districts, which has enjoyed a near 10 percent leap in graduation rates in less than two years.
Like a coach taking over a failing football team, Shumate has found ways to go back to the basics, and retooled the district’s agenda; namely, he has found fundamental ways to better connect students with their schools. At the kindergarten level, the school district has gone from half to full days, a move that Shumate declares “will pay off in long-term dividends.” The district also has implemented “reader screeners” to assess students achievement levels. “By having that kind of data,” he says, “we can intervene in a more timely manner.”
The district also has made efforts to better customize what Shumate calls “the high school experience” for each individual student. They have re-instituted a freshman advisory program, in which small groups of students meet every other week with teachers to better keep each student on track.
“We want every kid to connect to high school,” he says. Similar to a college major, students are matched and guided by their interests. “Not all (students) are athletes or band members,” he explains. “We have to create a place to attract kids likes and aptitudes.”
Shumate is also looking past just improving high school graduation rates. He also emphasizes that all students should have the tools and opportunities to attend school beyond high school.
“I still have a lot of faith in young people,” he declares. “We have to give them opportunities.”
Those opportunities can be substantial in future earnings, as the median income for those in Medford without a high school diploma is $12,523 less than someone with one, and the unemployment rate in 23 of the 25 cities in America with the lowest graduation rates is higher than the national jobless rate.
These factors—and other social hardships in the region—create an undertow that can be difficult to break free from: One of the greatest indicators whether a student will graduate high school and attend college is parents’ academic achievement levels—a number dismally low in southern Oregon (16 percent in Medford, and only 10 percent in Grants Pass). Moreover, 10 percent of students in Medford school district are homeless, by definition, and about two out of three receive free or reduced lunch, a common indicator for economically challenged families.
“We take all comers,” Shumate says. “and we don’t make any excuses.” A first-generation college graduate himself, he adds, “We take responsibility for helping these kids live better.” He goes on to talk not only about academic achievements, but also about physical and mental health.
“Am I optimistic?,” Shumate asks rhetorically, “Absolutely.”
In nearby Grants Pass, where graduation rates also are some of the lowest in the country, a new superintendent stepped into the position there earlier this summer. A request for an interview with the new superintendent was not acknowledged before presstime.