The Oregon Department of Education released its annual graduation rates Thursday and Hermiston fell well below the state average.
Hermiston School District’s graduation rate of 65.8 percent — a slight uptick from the previous year — is more than 10 points below the statewide graduation rate of 76.6 percent. The figure is derived from the percentage of students who receive a diploma four years after they begin high school.
Hermiston’s rates have been lower than the state average for the last few years, and the rate this year was the lowest of all districts in Umatilla County.
Hermiston administrators acknowledged that the rates are not where they had hoped.
“I would love to at least hit the state average next year,” said Hermiston High School Principal Tom Spoo. “And that would be a huge jump. The state average has been steadily climbing.”
One factor in the low rates, Spoo said, was the 2016 dissolution of the Innovative Learning Center, Hermiston’s alternative school. Those students were absorbed back into the high school.
“We’re still seeing the ramifications of the ILC dissolving,” Spoo said.
The graduation rate for Hermiston High School this year, including alternative school students, was 72.5 percent. Last year, with those students in a separate category, the high school graduation rate was 87.6 percent.
However, the district-wide graduation rates between the two years were roughly the same — with a 65.82 percent rate for 2016-2017, and 65.68 percent for the previous year. Those rates include students who take classes online.
Interim superintendent Tricia Mooney said many students from surrounding areas come to Hermiston to earn a GED, which counts as a completion but not a graduation.
“We know that counts against our graduation rate, but we feel it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
Mooney and Spoo both said they are trying to focus on improving the graduation rate over the long term.
“It takes several years to see the results of what we are doing,” Spoo said. He pointed to the newly-hired graduation coach, Omar Medina, who works with students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, to help them get back on track.
Spoo said he and assistant principal Scott Depew also meet one-on-one with struggling juniors and seniors, checking in with them regularly to help them get back on track.
“Research shows that once you bring an administrator in, there’s a little more of an impact, a sense of urgency,” he said.
Hermiston’s dropout rate is also nearly two points higher than the state average — 5.6 percent to the state’s 3.8 percent. Spoo said the district hopes to study those numbers further, but said there were some challenges with dropouts.
“The district will make phone calls and try to get those kids to come back in,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of control over that. Those habits have already been created — and that’s a frustration for us.”
But he said if they can get struggling students to complete a GED or a five-year diploma, they’ll attempt to.
“Walking out the door with nothing shouldn’t be an option,” he said.
Mooney said she examined the dropout data to figure out where those students were going. Many of the students included in the dropout data were those who had moved, or students who came to Hermiston late in their educational careers. But, she said, 14 students in this year’s dropout data had been with the district since kindergarten.
“We need to figure out how to do a better job with them,” she said.
Other schools in the area attributed their rates to continued efforts at all levels of schooling.
Umatilla School District saw a jump of nearly 10 points in the rate of its four-year cohort, with a graduation rate of 81.7 percent. Last year’s rate was 72.2 percent.
Superintendent Heidi Sipe credited staff members’ commitment to following through with students.
“I think that’s one of the things [Principal] Bob Lorence provides really well at the high school,” Sipe said. “He follows through, and makes sure students are meeting those expectations. When he first started, the kids weren’t very thrilled about the level of expectation and accountability. But kids need boundaries.”
She said Umatilla High School staff have been diligent about checking in with struggling students. They also have benefited from resources from the InterMountain Educational Service District.
“There are a host of services through the ESD at the K-12 level, which are essential to our collective success as a region,” she said.
She cited monthly meetings between all the superintendents in the ESD, where they share ideas and discuss things that are successful for their respective schools.
Another opportunity, she said, is the ESD’s migrant summer school program, which she said Umatilla has expanded to all students.
IMESD Superintendent Mark Mulvihill also praised the collaboration between the ESD and specific schools.
He said he was especially happy with the growth in Milton-Freewater and Umatilla school districts.
“Those are both high-poverty areas,” he said. “One thing we’ve done well to help kids get to the finish line is to have an adult advocate for them.”
He said having adults work with kids to develop a plan, and identifying groups of students vulnerable to dropping out, have been some successful strategies.
“We’ve gotten better at understanding how vulnerable high school freshmen are, and boys especially,” he said.
Mulvihill said the success was the result of years of work.
He said in order to raise graduation rates even further, he wanted to see increased mental health services to students and families.
“I believe if we’re going to go from the mid-80s to a 90 percent graduation rate, that’s the area we need to focus on,” he said.
Contact Jayati Ramakrishnan at 541-564-4534 or firstname.lastname@example.org.