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Mayra Ortiz, who signed a letter of intent to play soccer at Columbia Basin Community College after graduation from Umatilla High School, participated in signing day on May 23, 2018. 

Across the past five years, the Umatilla School District has had one of the starkest turnarounds in the region.

Umatilla went from graduating 67 percent of its students in 2013-2014 to 84.1 percent in 2017-2018.

One of the largest contributors to Umatilla’s rise was the white-Latino achievement gap, which went from 11 points in 2016-2017 to two points the following school year.

Advancements in Hispanic graduation rates were felt in districts across Umatilla and Morrow counties where the Latino student population was 45 percent or higher, leading to an uptick in the overall rate in many school systems.

Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe said the work of closing the gaps started in elementary school, where the district has a native language literacy program.

Instead of solely focusing on English, native Spanish speakers are taught literacy skills in their first language. Once these students start reading in English, Sipe said they should have the tools to sound out the words, even if the comprehension isn’t there yet.

Sipe uses an example of trying to teach kids the word “apple,” which doesn’t have meaning to a Spanish speaker.

“That’s not an apple to that student,” she said. “It’s a manzana.”

Beyond the native language literacy program, Sipe spotlighted other longstanding initiatives, like its after-school program and encouraging high school students to get their associate’s degrees, which has seen equal achievement between white and Latino students over the past two years.

Acknowledging that there’s a cultural divide between the community’s Latinos and its majority white staff, Umatilla has also hired community liaisons who are bilingual. Sipe said one of the liaisons would be hosting a tamale feed on Friday as a way to reach out to the community.

Umatilla and other nearby school districts’ success in graduating Hispanic students is in defiance of state trends.

Although it experienced modest growth in 2017-2018, Oregon’s Hispanic/Latino graduation rate was nearly 5.5 points below the white graduation rate.

A recent audit from the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office found the achievement gap for Latinos and other students of color “troubling.”

In comparison, the Milton-Freewater Unified School District has near parity between white and Hispanic student graduation rates.

Milton-Freewater Superintendent Rob Clark said the work from staff and changes in the community assisted in graduation growth.

“The assimilation of Latinos is evolving,” Clark said, meaning parents are more likely to be involved in school functions.

In some districts, like Stanfield and Morrow County, Latino students flipped the script, outpacing their white peers’ graduation rate.

Morrow County Superintendent Dirk Dirksen said his district’s mantra is to “meet students where they’re at.”

While that comes in a variety of forms, for immigrant high school students, it means sending them to a “welcome center” at Riverside High School in Boardman.

Dirksen said these students are given a lighter class schedule and less teachers as they’re acculturated into Morrow County schools.

Once they finish a year at the center, they’re moved on to a regular high school schedule.

Stanfield Superintendent Beth Burton said her district didn’t do anything specific for Latino students, adding that Stanfield Secondary School’s college readiness initiatives could have an effect.

Burton said counselor Kirsten Wright and the Generation College club she runs take students on trips to colleges and provide a strong motivator to graduate.

The Hermiston School District also saw some growth in Hispanic graduation, but a nearly 8 point gap exists between Latino and white students’ rates.

Regardless of race, Hermiston Superintendent Tricia Mooney said the district hopes its approach to literacy will pay dividends for graduation rates in the future.

Mooney said by expanding the district’s literacy focus to include reading, writing, speaking and listening, it should help in all facets of educational performance.

Like Sipe and Clark, Mooney highlighted the district’s higher completer rate — a statistic that includes students who completed a diploma or GED after the target graduation date.

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