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Graduation success stories attest to school board work
Beaverton High School senior Beatrice Kahn is joined by her twin sister, Eleanor, (right) and other people important to her during an April presentation of the University of Oregon Stamps Scholarship. The presentation used the trappings of college sports commitment ceremonies, and Kahn invited school board member Becky Tymchuk to be part of her special day. (Photo courtesy of Beaverton School District)
Beaverton High senior Beatrice Kahn is her school’s first student to receive the Stamps Scholarship, the University of Oregon’s most prestigious award. Kahn thrilled Beaverton School Board member Becky Tymchuk by inviting her to be at the April presentation.
“It’s the reason most of us get elected to school boards: We want to see students succeed,” Tymchuk said.
Graduation season in May and June, with its college enrollment and career plans announcements, is a celebration of students’ years of hard work. Many school board members say the best part of the role is handing out diplomas. It is a tangible moment of recognition not only of the students’ achievements, but also that school board members’ efforts made a difference.
Students say district policies and programs championed by school boards are shaping their lives as they head into the world, even if they don’t always know the faces behind the work. The past two years have been especially hard for school board members to make those rewarding connections with students.
Kahn is on the school board student advisory committee and talked with Tymchuk for more than a year but only met her in person shortly before the award’s presentation. Kahn said Tymchuk’s involvement in community needs inspires her and it has been an “honor” to work closely with Tymchuk on issues ranging from student mental health to a successful school bond campaign.
Having Tymchuk at the ceremony added to Kahn’s joy because it showed how invested the school district is in students’ success, she said.
Tymchuk said the invitation was a reminder that just interacting with students can make a difference.
“I don’t think any student at any level can have too many fans,” she said.
In eastern Oregon, where school starts earlier in the year, graduation ceremonies have already begun.
Mark Redmond, the Malheur Education Service District superintendent, said ceremonies around the county highlight the school districts’ success at raising graduation rates for Latino students and those whose families have lower incomes. With roughly a third of the county’s students living in poverty, Malheur has nearly double Oregon’s childhood poverty rate, according to Oregon by the Numbers, a compilation of community statistics from The Ford Foundation and the Oregon State University Extension Service.
The Malheur County Poverty to Prosperity initiative has been key, Redmond said. The program coordinates schools, businesses and government to create economic growth, with a particular focus on career and technical education programs.
Oregon data show that close to 90% of students who participate in CTE courses graduate. CTE courses also introduce students to possible local careers, while Oregon education policy is placing greater emphasis on creating kindergarten-to-career pathways. Redmond held up the Malheur Works Student Internship Program, a business and education collaboration that includes the ESD. It offers paid nine-week internships with local employers to graduated seniors.
Yolanda Diaz said her paid internship at the Oregon State University Extension Service in Ontario last summer has been instrumental to her college journey. Diaz is the daughter of migrant farmworkers. She graduated from Nyssa High School in Malheur County last year and is now a George Fox University student.
Not only did the summer income help pay for her college, but it also let her explore becoming a social worker and made possible a follow-up internship this year.
This year’s Oregon graduation rate won’t be known until January, but education leaders are concerned it could slip as schools struggle with disengagement and lost class time due to the pandemic. Last year, the graduation rate dropped 2 percentage points to 80.6% after years of growth. It remains one of the lowest in the nation, but some districts are finding ways to beat the average.
The Hermiston School District raised its graduation rate 22 percentage points between 2016 and 2021 to 88%. The district’s “focus on graduation” implemented a variety of long-term cultural and systemic changes, starting with using its data better to identify struggling students early in high school before problems became crises.
“We knew it would take at least four years to get where we want,” Hermiston Superintendent Tricia Mooney said.
When Mooney recommended creating a graduation coach position, the school board intentionally shifted funds to support the effort, Chair Josh Goller said. He said hiring a graduation coach in 2018 has likely been the most important step in raising graduation rates.
The graduation coach mostly works with freshmen and sophomores to identify and support students who are in danger of falling off the track to graduate. Graduation coach Janeth Macias said it’s important to have someone checking the data who can see the whole picture of how a student is doing.
Macias said some students are just slipping a little and need a nudge while others require more intensive tutoring or social work intervention to address deeper problems.
The first graduation coach, Omar Medina, has since moved to a district counseling job, but he has kept after his students, such as Ricardo Derobles.
In his freshman year, Derobles was prone to skipping class and not paying attention, and Medina brought Derobles’ parents into the conversation. He let Derobles know, though, that he wasn’t in trouble, and his parents just wanted better for him.
Derobles said Medina helped him understand that a high school diploma was the ticket to better jobs and meeting other life goals. Medina showed him the “big picture” that he had to pass core classes freshman year if he wanted a diploma in four years.
“He pointed me in the right direction,” Derobles said. “I needed to change bad habits to good habits.”
It wasn’t a one-stop transformation though. Derobles said Medina continued to check up on him, even after moving to the counseling job. Derobles said he would work a little harder in class knowing that Medina would be looking at his grades.
Those grades have improved enough that Derobles will be getting a diploma June 9.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA