The Dalles High School has seen a huge improvement in its graduation rate, which jumped from 68.3 percent in 2014-15 to a whopping 83.2 percent in 2015-16.
The figure is a measurement of the percentage of students who graduated “on time,” or within four years.
“I’m very pleased,” said Candy Armstrong, superintendent of School District 21. “That’s a huge jump.”
That represents a 21.8 percent increase in the graduation rate, which previously had been trending upward, but at a much slower pace.
She’s not expecting the graduation rate next year to be a similarly high jump, but said the trendline is heading in the right direction.
In 2013-14, the school had a 64 percent graduation rate, 2012-13 was 62.8 percent, and 2011-12 was 59.7 percent.
On the other end of the graduation spectrum, the high school’s dropout rate “is going in the right direction,” Armstrong said. In 2015-16, the school had a 2.2 percent dropout rate, which was 2.9 percent in 2014-15, 6.1 percent in 2013-14, and 7.9 percent in 2012-13.
It takes a long time to turn things around, Armstrong said, but the trends are going up for graduation “and they’re going down — actually they dropped like a rock for the dropout rate, so it’s good news all the way around.”
She said new programs implemented at the high school, including AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) and Equal Opportunity Schools —which encourages more students to take advanced placement courses — are “going to help build sustainability for really high graduation rates and really low dropout rates. I’m really pleased.
“They’ve put in a lot of work over there, they deserve a pat on the back.”
Equal Opportunity Schools help profile students who are traditionally not in AP classes, identify the ones who would be successful and encourage them to take those classes.
Consequently, the number of students taking AP classes has ballooned, she said, and the high school is also training more teachers to teach AP classes.
The AVID program works to close the achievement gap so all students are career or college ready.
According to its website, AVID provides “research‐based strategies and curriculum” to schools and provides educators with training and “methodologies that develop students’ critical thinking, literacy, and math skills across all content areas throughout the entire campus, in what we call Schoolwide AVID.”
The latest report card from the state, which was released last fall, is confusing because it includes the 2014-15 graduation rate, but has 2015-16 test scores, Armstrong said.
Several years ago, the high school set an ambitious, self-imposed goal of improving the graduation rate five percentage points per year for the next four years.
This single-year jump of 14.9 percentage points represents a gain far beyond the school’s own expectations.
The Dalles has traditionally lagged behind neighboring school district graduation rates, including Hood River Valley High School, but this year, The Dalles bested Hood River, which had an 81.8 percent graduate rate.
Dufur had an 89.5 percent graduation rate, South Wasco County had an 88.2 percent rate, and Sherman County High School had an 80 percent graduation rate.
The statewide graduation rate is 75 percent, up one percentage point from the year before.
Oregon has one of the worst graduation rates in the country, ranking 48th in on-time graduation.
Top states in the nation graduate 90 percent of students.
How they did it
Shifting a graduation rate upwards nearly 15 percentage points in a single year is not a result that was achieved quickly, and it also can’t be attributed to a single thing, or even a few things.
With the class of 2016, The Dalles High School bumped its graduation rate from 68.3 percent to 83.2 percent.
And it wasn’t a one-off fluke. This year’s sophomore class, for example, is on track for an 86 percent graduation rate, said Vice-Principal Kurt Evans.
Principal Nick Nelson and Evans took over the top two posts at the high school four years ago, when the class of 2016 were freshmen.
When they took over, Nelson and Evans began implementing a series of changes to boost student performance and graduation rates.
By the time the class of 2016 entered senior year, “this group probably by far, in a long time, had the best credit accumulation,” Nelson said.
Which means they were on track to graduate.
With each incoming class, as they move up through the grades, more and more students are getting on track to graduate, and are showing improved grades, attendance and test scores. “When students come here, bottom line, they improve over time,” Evans said.
Attendance is key to graduation, and that number has steadily improved. They measure the percentage of students who attend regularly, or 90 percent of the time. Four years ago, 63 percent attended regularly. This year, more than 80 percent do, Evans said. The state average is 73 percent.
The success is not just due to tweaks to schedules — such as the successful switch from semesters to trimesters — and several new programs aimed at supporting struggling students. Community support is noticeably stronger and both students and staff feel it and are very appreciative of it, Nelson said.
“We need that support, we want that support, we thrive on that support,” Nelson said.
Nelson credited the teaching staff with being the key component to the school’s success.
“We believe this staff can get into the top 10 percent performing high schools in Oregon and we’re working our way to that point and everybody’s rowing in the same direction,” he said.
Evans agreed, saying, the teaching staff is “the bottom line of why the school’s become increasingly effective over the years.”
He said they bring “That commitment and consistency, with effective teaching practices, and the core belief that they are the most impactive variable in that kid’s life when it comes to education.”
Teachers don’t just accept that a student has low math skills, he said, they work to improve them. Same with a student with high math skills.
“That’s a culture and belief system that is sometimes hard to replicate, but that exists here,” Evans said.
He said “foundational changes” have been made in teaching practices, the way the school addresses attendance issues and discipline issues, in its grading system, and in its schedule.
Changes include several programs aimed at helping students, including ELAchieve, which helps English learners, and another program to intervene with students with learning and behavioral difficulties.
The school is in its second year of AVID, a grant-funded program that trains teachers in research-based effective teaching methods.
There are more Advance Placement classes — there are nine now and one or two more planned for next year — and more students taking them. That is thanks in part to a program that identifies students who would be a success in AP but aren’t part of the group that traditionally takes such classes.
The school has 153 AP students, or a quarter of the student population. Add in honors classes and college classes, and it includes half the student body, Evans said.
The school is offering more career/technical classes, including more mechanics, woods, and robotics classes. Career/technical classes — which offer hands-on instruction and a relevancy to learning that students crave — are powerful tools to keep kids on track for graduation.
Students who take three years of such courses have a probable graduation rate of 94 percent, Evans said.
Building on hands-on learning is a growing mentoring program — being nurtured along by school board member Kathy Ursprung — that pairs students with business owners willing to teach them the soft skills that will give them success in the work force, Nelson said.
More classes are available at Columbia Gorge Community College, either taught by college instructors or by high school teachers. Such classes include writing, medical terminology and welding. Evans said he has long used “predictive analytics” to learn what predicts student success, and student failure, and to direct resources to areas that are revealed as chokepoints.
For example, analysis has shown that the biggest predictor of graduation from The Dalles High School is how well a student does in core freshman classes like English and math (Algebra I), Evans said.
They also studied whether a student is more successful in a 90-minute, 70-minute or 45-minute class.
“The longer the period, the more instruction takes place, there’s more opportunity for kids to work together,” Nelson said.
Interventions are done with struggling students, and “success breeds success,” Nelson said.
Athletics and extra-curricular activities also get students to feel vested in the school. Nelson lauded Lowry Browning’s theater program and Paul Viemeister’s music program, along with the sports program.
“It’s giving students an opportunity to tap into the skills they have,” Nelson said.
Nelson also lauded the school board. “They’re keenly interested in where this district should go and can go and they’ve been really supportive. It’s really difficult for me to grasp how much time they devote — for free. I think they’ve done an outstanding job in getting training and versed in what makes an effective school board.”
As for community backing, Nelson said the Mid-Columbia Health Foundation’s support in building the high school a new weight room, and the district’s repainting of the gym, was one of the turning points in students feeling community support. “That means a lot to the kids,” he said.
Evans said visible community support has been shown with a revived booster club and other efforts.
There are also external factors that are boosting graduation rates. People seem to be moving in and out of the district less, and local economics are allowing families to stay here. “We’re also doing a better job of finding students who left us and finding where they are,” Nelson said.
A student who leaves The Dalles, but doesn’t appear in another district, counts as a drop-out for The Dalles.
It behooves the school to find where they’ve ended up so they can prove that they continued their education elsewhere.
Nelson said the key to sustaining this success is consistency.
“We have to, with fidelity, continue on this intervention and we will create a culture and climate that leads into” an improved graduation rate, Nelson said.
Evans said that, compared to similar schools — such as those in the same athletic league and other similarly sized schools —
The Dalles is first in math scores and tied for first in language arts.
The schools are Pendleton, Hermistion, Hood River Valley, Crook County, Madras and Redmond.
“Academically we’re at the top. Attendance and graduation we’re right in the middle,” he said.