Oregon has the third-worst high school graduation rate in the nation. Only 76.7 percent of students in the state received a diploma within four years in 2017, according to data released Thursday by the state Department of Education.
But Victoria Davis is among the students who are helping to improve that statistic.
Davis, 16, is a junior at Lowell Junior/Senior High School, about 20 miles southeast of Springfield. She’s been homeless off and on for the past several years. She chose not to attend most of eighth and ninth grade. And for most of last year, Davis lived in her grandfather’s Springfield garage, with her mother and aunt. Now, Davis and her mother live at her uncle’s house in Springfield.
“My parents didn’t really think school was important, so I didn’t really go,” she said, sitting in Lowell Junior/Senior High School’s small library on a recent Wednesday afternoon. “I was living in a garage in Springfield last year, and just had this thought … ‘What is my life?’ And I realized I needed to set some goals and some intentions. I didn’t want to end up like my parents. I wanted more for myself.”
Davis, who has long brown hair and a calm demeanor, was sure she wouldn’t to be able to realize her goals in the large school she was attending.
“I felt like I was just another ant in the grass in Springfield,” she said.
Davis transferred to Lowell Junior/Senior High School in 2016, where she enrolled in all freshman classes during her sophomore year. Every day, she traveled to school in a district-owned van, paid for with federal McKinny-Vento dollars.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, enacted by Congress in 1987, established the right of homeless youth to equal access to the same free, appropriate public education as other students.
This year, as a junior, Davis is enrolled in 11 classes — nine periods at school and two online. She’s earning 11 credits this year, partly to make up for the school years she lost to poor attendance or sub-par grades. Students typically earn six credits a year in high school. Next year, Davis will have a full schedule, but she won’t have to take on extra classes. She plans to graduate in 2019.
In a recent interview, Davis attributed her success to the Lowell School District staff and students. About 170 students are enrolled there.
In 2017, the Lowell School District graduated about 88.5 percent of its seniors in four years. Not only does Lowell’s graduation rate exceed the state and national averages, the rate of students graduating in four years has increased by about 30 percentage points in the past few years.
It wasn’t always this way.
Lowell’s graduation rally
In 2013, only about 50 percent of seniors — about 12 students — received diplomas in the Lowell School District. Last year, 22 students out of 26 seniors earned a high school diploma.
Lowell Junior/Senior High School Principal Kay Graham attributes much of the school’s graduation rate success to a few key factors:
Extra time in the classroom with licensed teachers.
An abundance of career technical education and college courses.
Staying on top of attendance issues.
Teachers and staff members who are actively engaged in students’ lives — especially when students are struggling.
Four days a week, students attend study halls after school where they can receive extra help from teachers. They also can work to make up tests, credits or other important academic components.
Each day focuses on a different subject: Monday is math; Tuesday is English; Wednesday is science; and Thursday is social studies. Teachers trade off staying after school to help tutor. Some show up most days. Students can attend any of the study sessions and still catch the second round of buses at 4 p.m. to go home.
“Some kids just need five minutes of help. Some need to make up missed assignments and tests, and others need to physically be in the classroom to get work done,” said Toni Beckett, a science teacher at the junior/senior high school. “I think it’s great. It shows the students that we’re here for them and want them to be successful.”
Graham implemented the after-school study program in 2013, the same year she was hired at the school.
Regular attendance is another key focus at Lowell. When students don’t show up for class, Graham wants to know why.
“We personally call home, or where parents are reachable, instead of sending out automated calls,” Graham said. “Kids are smart; they know how to keep information from their parents. But actually talking to families helps us to build a trusting relationship, too.”
If a student isn’t at school, Graham or another administrator will sit down with the student to find out why they were gone, and to figure out how they will make up any missed assignments, class lectures or tests.
Graham said she also has strict rules for student athletes, and for students who have failing grades. Students who are getting D’s or F’s are required to attend after-school study sessions. Athletes who are failing classes can’t compete until they bring up their grades.
Graham credited the many career-technical education and advanced placement classes at the school with keeping students invested in their future.
Examples of CTE classes — once known as vocational courses — include construction technology, engineering, business management, early childhood development, computer sciences, robotics, engineering and culinary arts.
Overall, students and staff at Lowell agree that the small class sizes and the efforts of students and staff to build relationships are the keys to success. Several students and staff members have described the school-community as a family.
“We approach this as if they’re our own kids,” Graham said. “We treat these students the way we would want somebody to treat ours.”
South Lane seeing success
Cottage Grove High School, in the South Lane School District, has the highest graduation rate of any high school in Lane County. About 96 percent of students — 167 of the school’s 174 seniors — received diplomas in 2017. About 745 students attend Cottage Grove High School.
South Lane’s overall district graduation rate is similar to that of the Eugene district, hovering around 76 percent. The 19.6 percent graduation rate at Al Kennedy, the district’s alternative high school, brought down the district’s overall 2017 graduation rate.
Of the 56 seniors at the alternative school, 11 received an Oregon high school diploma while 12 earned their GED last year.
South Lane district officials attributed a combination of factors to Cottage Grove High School’s high rate of on-time student graduation, and they largely echo those at Lowell: Regular attendance, after-school help, extracurricular activities and providing a wide range of college and career opportunities in the classroom.
Cottage Grove High School Principal Mike Ingman said in an interview Tuesday that teachers and administrators there aim to connect with students in a holistic way instead of just on an academic level.
“Kids will do well if they can,” Ingman said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that we give them opportunities to get there.”
Ingman said several programs ensure that students don’t “slip through the cracks,” including freshman support classes for students who are struggling to maintain good grades; an after-school homework club that runs three days a week; credit recovery programs and summer school.
Attendance at Cottage Grove High School also is a major focus for administrators. Chris Wells, the school’s dean of students, said that he meets with every student who misses class, even if it’s just one class.
“I meet with every student who has an unexcused absence,” Wells said. “It’s really brief, but I pull them out of class on their turf and talk to them about why they missed class. Even if it’s just one period, there are consequences, and we expect students to make it up on a one-to-one basis. So if they miss one class, they spend one period in lunch detention or making that time up with a teacher.”
Wells said that holding students accountable with his focus on attendance seems to be working, but the disciplinary results are only half of the equation.
“It’s all about building a relationship,” Wells said. “If you’re here, you’re going to do better, so that means we need to make the kids feel like being here is better than not. Making them feel bad for making mistakes doesn’t really work, but encouraging them to do better and reassuring them that they have the capabilities to do better is key to their success.”
Mariah Keppler, an 18-year-old senior at Cottage Grove High School, transferred to Churchill High School in Eugene as a junior, but she returned for her senior year.
“I kind of got lost up there because it was so big,” she said. “I just needed more support, and I knew I could find it here. The teachers and counselors are super proactive about getting to students. They don’t let people fall behind, and they’ll make sure to bug you about it if you’re struggling.
Keppler said she has been pulled out of class by Wells a few times when she’s been late to class or missed a full period.
“I appreciate him calling me out,” she said. “I mean, I wasn’t thrilled about getting a detention, but it made me want to get to school on time afterwards.”