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Ashland High School named among the elite

Ashland High School has earned a silver medal from the U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best High Schools" review, published this week.

The magazine compiled test scores and college readiness data from 19,000 public high schools in 49 states, in conjunction with pre-collegiate research company School Education Services.

The nation's top 100 high schools based on the data were given a "gold medal" ranking. Schools that performed at an exceptionally high level, but finished just outside the top 100, were given a silver medal ranking.

AHS was one of 461 schools nationwide to be awarded silver medal recognition. Principal Jeff Schlecht credited a dedicated staff and volunteer group with raising test scores and graduation rates among low-income and disadvantaged students, criteria the national school review looked favorably on in its assessment.

"Several years ago we were looking at a graduation rate around 60 or 61 percent," Schlecht said. "Now we're up to 86 percent. I credit the partnership with all of those volunteers in helping our kids."

The nationwide assessment was conducted in three phases: All schools were evaluated based on student test scores, compared to standardized test scores from schools across the state.

The second phase was a school-by-school comparison of disadvantaged students from low-income families.

Only top-tier schools in the first two criteria were evaluated in the third: college readiness, reflected in the test scores of students in advanced placement courses or enrolled in high-level international programs.

While the third criteria ultimately secured a silver medal for AHS, Schlecht says the school's improvement in the second category — scores among disadvantaged students — is cause for most celebration.

"We knew we did an exceptional job with honors students," Schlecht said. "But as far as the kids that do not do as well, we wanted to help them develop their potential."

Schlecht credits Oregon's ASPIRE program with helping to rein in the student achievement gap in Ashland. The program matches qualified volunteers with high school students. The volunteers offer one-on-one guidance, from what classes to take to what colleges to attend and, ultimately, what careers to choose.

A drastic improvement in the school's graduation rate is the culmination of an effort begun by Schlecht and AHS staff in the outgoing principal's first years at the school.

"I still remember that staff meeting we had seven or eight years ago," he said, "when we decided, 'Let's walk our talk when we say that all kids are treated with equal value.'"

The award is Ashland's second silver medal in the three years U.S. News has published the rankings. Schlecht said equal credit is deserved of local teachers and administrators from the kindergarten through eighth-grade level, whose dedication sends students to the high school with many tools for success already in place.

And he added that the award would make a nice conversation piece for the next AHS staff meeting.

"I'm ecstatic I get to say to my teachers, not only 'job well done,' but 'you're among the best," he said. "To be recognized on the national level, within the context of budget cuts. I am just overjoyed."

Elon Glucklich is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Contact him at eglucklich@gmail.com.