August 27, 2020

Closing the Graduation Gap in Jefferson County

Officials at the Central Oregon school district say a focus on individual student needs has helped almost everyone, particularly Latinos and Native Americans.


Pamplin Media Group

A decade ago, the “graduation gap” in Jefferson County was more like a chasm. The district’s enrollment is roughly one-third Latino, one-third Native American and one-third non-Hispanic white. But that balance didn’t carry over to who was getting high school diplomas.

While 77.1% of white students graduated on time in the 2012-13 school year, just 57.1% of Latino students did. And of Native American students, just 38.3% finished high school in four years.

In the past two years, however, all those groups have seen significant gains, but none as much as Latino students, whose graduation rate outpaced the state average and their white peers in the 2017-18 school year, with an 88% rate. White students also saw gains, with an 86% rate, compared to the state’s 79%.

Native American also saw significant gains. While the group is behind other students at 60%, their rates have increased by 22.7 percentage points from the lowest rate in the past nine years, which was in 2013-14. Their improvement was slightly more than white students when compared with that same year. The district attributes those gains to several things.

“Our actions/strategies include implementing high-quality professional learning communities, embedded professional learning to improve instruction and engaging families as partners in student learning,” said Superintendent Ken Parshall. “These strategies led to improved state assessment results in the ’17-18 and ’18-19 school years in math and literacy. Unfortunately, we felt positioned for our best results last spring, but the state assessments were canceled by the Oregon Department of Education. We are continuing our focus on these research-based strategies for improving student achievement, and we are confident we will continue to make progress in student learning.”

School officials in Madras say the individual attention given to students Bridges High School is one reason graduation rates have risen for all students. Last year, 51 students graduated from the alternative school including, from back left to right, Ruiben Gonzalez, DzJiana Enriquez, Richayla Elliott, Aram David, Samantha Culps, Caramiah Charley and Victor Calixtro. Steele Haugen/Pamplin Media Group

Jay Weeks, principal at Bridges High School, said professional learning communities, where teachers meet on Monday mornings in small groups, identify what students need to learn and what is needed to collaborate and help students.

“And that’s at every school across the district,” he said.

Madras Elementary School Principal Chris Wyland echoed that. Wyland, who was vice principal at Warm Springs K-8 Academy for four years prior to his tenure at Madras Elementary, said the professional learning communities, Response to Intervention, and professional development are all grounded in equity.

“We’re giving our teachers more powerful tools,” Wyland said.

One of those is professional development through AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination. Many teachers have attended AVID conferences and use the organization’s strategies in the classroom. Its mission is “to close the opportunity gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society.”

One of its areas of training is in equity. AVID emphasizes soft skills and an environment that promotes going to college, as well as making classes culturally relevant to students.

Response to Intervention is a strategy where teachers look at data to identify struggling students and what will help them.

“It naturally leads to reflection about which students are learning and which students aren’t,” Wyland said. “We’re not giving every student the same (thing), we’re giving students what they need.”

Weeks said the district also is focusing on relationships with families and students, both academically and in other areas. At Bridges, an alternative high school, that’s part of the model. Bridges has just over 100 students, compared with 310 at Madras High.

“Every kid has their own reason and their own story and their own situation that brings them to an alternative school,” Weeks said. “We get to focus and really get to know and help the kids.” 

That’s the goal of all educators, but an alternative setting facilitates it in a different way, he said.

At Madras High School, the emphasis has also been on building relationships. Wyland said the goal of all the work the district is doing is to give students the skills to do what they want to do after high school, whether that is going to college, joining the military or getting a job.

“When you don’t have a high school diploma, it eliminates choice,” Wyland said. “When you do have a high school diploma, it opens up a world of possibilities, and that’s we want for every child.”

This article is part of a collaborative reporting project that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.  Additional funding for Pamplin Media Group’s exploration of the impact of distance-learning on Latino students comes from the Google News Initiative.   

About the author

Teresa Jackson

Teresa Jackson is editor of the Madras Pioneer. Her family has lived in the Central Oregon city for eight years.