OSBA convention emphasizes ways to improve graduation rates
The Beaverton STARS, a special needs color guard team from the Beaverton School District, performed Friday at OSBA’s 71st Annual Convention. The STARS, featuring middle and high school students, are the only special needs color guard in the Pacific Northwest. (Photo by Alex Pulaski, OSBA)
OSBA’s 71st Annual Convention had two modes: Choking back the tears and learning how to channel that passion for the kids.
The general sessions featured emotional stories about the power of schools to reach individual students, while the nearly 70 workshops offered detailed information on ways to improve Oregon’s schools. The Promise of Oregon campaign debuted “Graduation is Victory,” a video celebrating what graduation means to Oregon students, and more than a dozen sessions dealt specifically with strategies to raise graduation rates.
National School Boards Association President Kevin Ciak of New Jersey kicked off the graduation theme at the opening reception Thursday at the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront. He said it was commendable that school boards across Oregon are focused on graduation rates.
“It’s indicative of the fact that you are committed to all of our students being able to succeed in the 21st century,” he said.
Raising Oregon’s graduation rate was the underlying theme through Sunday’s close, and speakers throughout the convention focused on helping historically underserved populations and closing the achievement gap.
“Think about programs to serve student groups who are not graduating,” Acting Superintendent of Public Instruction Colt Gill told the audience at the Friday general session.
Gill led a panel discussion with Eagle Point School District Superintendent Cynda Rickert, Student Services Supervisor Phil Ortega and sophomore Gabe Mercado. Eagle Point has reduced its chronic absenteeism rate 6 percentage points in three years and improved its graduation rate almost 12 percentage points in two years.
Eagle Point staff held a session on their methods, particularly their comprehensive approach to reducing absenteeism. The district devotes staff time to getting students back in school before they miss too many days.
Oregon Department of Education Office of Teaching, Learning and Assessment Director Johnna Timmes and Education Specialist Robin Shobe held a session on “Practices that Promote Student Attendance for Graduation.”
Chronic absenteeism is the strongest predictor of dropping out of high school, according to their presentation. They spoke about understanding what students need to get to school and to stay there. Often students are struggling with economic, cultural or personal barriers that schools can help break down if they find out about them.
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, provided some of the national perspective at a morning breakfast, warning of the potentially harmful effects of the Republican tax plan. She called cuts to education support short-sighted.
“Education is a really good investment,” she said.
She also spoke of the employment value of a broader education.
“Nobody says I’m looking for a rote learner with good test scores,” she said.
OSBA President-elect LeeAnn Larsen (Beaverton School Board) stirred up the audience when she talked about Oregon’s need for revenue reform.
“I’m tired of fighting tooth and nail for every education dollar every two years,” she said.
Roughly 800 people attended some part of the conference, and many spoke about how emotional the presentations had been. Attendees said they were learning lots to take back to their districts. They also said they felt inspired to do more.
Speakers at the sessions kept returning to the personal connections that keep children in school and get them to graduation.
OSBA Executive Director Jim Green spoke movingly of John Horn, a teacher who inspired Green when he was in high school.
“He made me think about what I wanted to do with my life,” Green said. “There were times the only reason I stayed in high school was because of John Horn.”
Keynote speaker Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch told her story of rising up from a rough part of Laredo, Texas, to becoming the highest-ranking Latino woman in the Combat Support Field of the U.S. Army. She said her father taught her: “You’re never free until you are educated.”
Her speech emphasized the value of empathy and love to reaching out to minority student groups, the first step in improving their education outcomes.
Wayne Maines told the story of his transgender daughter and the fight to get her fair treatment in school, which was detailed in the book “Becoming Nicole.” Transgender rights have been a flashpoint in schools, but Maines urged people to get past the political talking points on so many issues.
“What better common ground than our children?” he said.
He also spoke of the possibilities of education.
“We can help all our children get to be who they need to be,” he said. “Our kids must get to believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
Futurist David Zach closed on an upbeat note Sunday, giving advice on how to think more creatively about education’s problems. He spoke of the essential mission of education in a rapidly changing world.
“How do we light that fire to be more curious about the world?” he asked.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA