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Graduation rate hinges on reaching underserved students, Oregon education official says

By Jake Arnold, OSBA

(Below) Colt Gill, Oregon education innovation officer, meets Aug. 3 with students from the Malheur area. Gill traveled the state to listen and ask questions about what was working in local school districts and what needed to be done. (Photo: Laura Lien)

Colt Gill, Oregon education innovation officer, meets with families from Malheur. As Oregon’s first education innovation officer, Colt Gill has the primary task of improving graduation rates. He has traveled around the state listening to communities talk about what works and what they need for better schools.

From this work, the Chief Education Office in January released a report, “What will it take to improve Oregon’s graduation outcomes?” The report laid out findings about Oregon’s education system and offered 10 improvement strategies.

As the legislative session gets rolling, Gill points to Senate Bill 183 as a primary means of helping schools improve graduation rates. The Senate Education Committee will have a hearing on the bill Thursday, Feb. 9. The bill, with a $20 million price tag, would give Gill tools to try to improve graduation rates, including creating a data system designed to keep students on track, implementing methods to battle chronic absenteeism and finding ways to support students who have faced challenges.

“We’re looking to make some very small investments that would have a statewide impact,” Gill said.

Gill gave an interview recently to OSBA, broadly covering education in Oregon as well as school board members’ role in shaping education. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Q:  What is the role of the school board in raising graduation rates?

A:  First and foremost is that they set the expectations and the priorities for the school district. They have a strong focus on graduation outcomes and reaching equity in those, both closing the gap and ensuring more kids are graduating ready for their next step.

They can also request and be very thoughtful about data, and have that presented to them frequently so they can be aware of not only the graduation outcomes but what leads to the graduation outcomes. They can follow whether major district initiatives are making a difference for their students.

A third one I would have to consider is as a policy filter. One of school boards’ primary functions in Oregon is to set district policy, so they are continually looking at their policy with a set of filters. These might be things like return on investment. If we’re going to invest in a new reading program, what do we expect to happen in our reading readiness scores? Another filter might be around equity. When we are implementing a new program for proficiency grading at the high school, how do we expect that to impact not only the majority of our students but students from special populations?

They can also just take a look at it in terms of spending around their top priorities. If their top priority is graduation outcome, are they spending more money on revamping the cafeteria and school nutrition program or more money on curriculum in the classroom? It could be they would still decide yes, we are going to retool the school nutrition program because we believe that if our students are well fed every day with a nutritious meal, they will be more attentive in the afternoon and be able to learn more and proceed toward their credits to graduate on time.

Q:  In an era of budget shortfalls, what is the most effective thing schools can do to raise the graduation rate that doesn’t cost extra money?

A:  A strong piece of it is training. Training does cost a little bit but not like implementing entire programs. Training in culturally specific pedagogy so that teachers and folks who work with students know they are working hard to reach all students and understanding different cultures.

Another thing that doesn’t cost a lot of money and can be very powerful is developing strong partnerships across the community, which is a time issue. Our educators are very short on time and our school board members are too, but one of those areas of volunteer service might be working to connect their district with local business and industry. Does their community have a booming tech industry; does their community have a new hospital coming in and will they have a need for more nurses or emergency medical workers?

Another area of partnership is around culturally specific programing. Sometimes our schools are in a rapidly changing community, but the school district itself and its staffing haven’t changed demographically as rapidly as the students have. So there could be other community organizations or clubs or agencies that could really help the school connect with the families they are now serving.

Q:  In the report, what do you mean by creating “multiple pathways and meaningful learning opportunities” to improve high school graduation rates?

A:  The plain language version of that is we know we are no longer in a one-size-fits-all world. So having every student go through a traditional K-12 system and a comprehensive high school won’t work for every student. We need to have multiple opportunities for students to be able to identify what it is that engages them and keeps them wanting to come to school every day.

It can look like having alternative programs where students are participating in internships; it can look like career technical education courses where students are learning computer coding or medical occupations, kinds of hands-on things. It can also look like opportunities for students to be engaged in college-level curriculum.

Q:  With limited resources, how can a school curriculum be crafted that serves diverse student interests and needs while still satisfying the majority’s needs for core programs?

A:  The ultimate would be that every school in Oregon had every one of those initiatives (in the report) going on, but the reality is that districts need to prioritize what they think will make the greatest difference for the kids in their district.

Our schools do serve the majority, and so we have graduation rates where three-quarters of our students graduate and are fairly satisfied with the education they received. Where we are falling short is with a number of communities that have been historically underserved in Oregon. We need to look at the 25 percent of our kids who aren’t graduating on time. They don’t really look like the population in Oregon, and they don’t look like the population of students who are graduating in our schools. They are predominantly students of color, students living in tribal communities, students with disabilities, our LGBTQ student communities. 

What we heard over and over again is that we need to focus on equitable practices, with things like culturally specific and responsive teaching practices so that we’re limiting the kinds of discrimination that can occur in a large system with lots of people. Then we need to work on building strong relationships and showing relevance of curriculum, especially for middle school and high school students, really trying to demonstrate the relevance to their life later on.

Q:  How are Oregon schools not equitable?

A:  I think that what you see is the outcome, so that’s where you can point to that we have some sort of inequity. Our students of color don’t perform as well on the assessments; our students of color don’t perform as well on the graduation rates; and our students of color are more impacted by the chronic absenteeism rates. The challenge there is to say not “Are the schools doing something specifically inequitable in their services for these students?” but I think what you need to turn it to and point to is “If we were equitable, then our outcomes would be more equal.”

Every student needs a different level of support to meet the same standard or reach the finish line at the same time. Some students need additional practice. Other students don’t need additional practice, but they might need encouragement.

Q:  How do career and technical education courses tie in with goals for equity in schools?

A:  One of the groups I mentioned before that had lower graduation rates in Oregon is boys. Our girls in Oregon in 2015 have 8 percentage point higher graduation rates than our boys. (In the most recent report, it was 7 percentage points.) That’s a significant gap. We need programs in our schools that motivate specific populations of students to come to school every day and keep them engaged in the learning.

We do know that with career technical education in Oregon, the students who have participated have graduation rates that are 10 to 20 points higher than the average in our state. If we can provide more access to career technical education (CTE), then we can provide programs that both excite and meet the needs of more students.

Q:  Measure 98 was designed and passed with an eye toward increasing career and technical education opportunities, but many districts are saying it will hamper already effective programs by forcing them to spend money on new programs. What are some of the things that you are hearing from districts and other stakeholders across the state as you talk with them about possible implementation of Measure 98?

A:  CTE programs are very expensive. Districts would need to make a tremendous multi-year investment to create a new program. Measure 98 is funded each biennium for that biennium. So two years in, after a district has invested for a new program of study in computer coding, the 2019 Legislature says, “We can’t fund Measure 98 this time around but we’ll think about it again in 2021.”  Now you have students who have invested two years in a program that is a three- or four-year program, and it is pulled out from under them. And you also have this lab of computers and this partnership with industries and all this set on the sideline.

Until someone in leadership, legislation or whoever, is willing to answer those questions of whether this is sustainable investment in these programs and what level that investment will be, they are very reluctant. They are more likely to improve a current program by updating computers or the lathe in the wood shop. The problem with that is on the equity side you’re not serving any new students. You’re serving the exact same students you did before but in a better way. So in the end you’re not changing your graduation outcomes at all.