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Oregon grad rates remain stagnant for high schools

Oregon high schools continue to have one of the worst rates in the nation for graduating students on time, according to new figures from the State Department of Education.

Only 68.4 percent of the state's class of 2012 received diplomas after four years. This is a slight increase from the previous year's rate of 67.6 percent, when Oregon ranked fourth from the bottom in the U.S. In response, the governor and Legislature set a goal to have all students by the class of 2025 complete high school.

"It isn't acceptable that Oregon is the fourth worst in graduation rates and fourth in education funding," says Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long. "We were once a leader in education, and the choices we have made are having a consequence on our kids."

The bad economy has played a role in many high school students struggling to earn a diploma, Long says.

Students scheduled to graduate in 2012 were freshmen when school districts were cutting back class days, eliminating summer and alternative education and decreasing other support programs.

The financial crisis also forced families to take children out of school and move to new districts after losing their jobs and homes.

Medford School District, the largest with 1,028 students in its class of 2012, had 64 percent of its seniors graduate on time, a rate under the state average.

This is the first decrease in eight years, says Long, who adds that the number of students enrolled increased as did requests for free or reduced-cost meals.

"Fifty-four percent of the students in the class of 2012 were new to us or had a break in enrollment," he says, "and graduation numbers plummeted significantly."

He says the district wants to offer additional support for students who have disruptions in their education, citing that the on-time graduating rate for students enrolled all four years in Medford schools is 91 percent.

North Medford High School had a 68 percent graduation rate, a drop from 69 percent in 2011, which was a big leap above the 64 percent number posted in 2010. Of the school's 431 seniors in 2012, 93 left before graduating, while 34 received diplomas in their fifth year of high school.

South Medford High School stayed consistent with an 80 percent on-time graduation rate last year and in 2011, but has not rebounded to its 2010 rate of 83 percent. Of the 428 seniors in the class of 2012, 21 earned a diploma after five years while 62 dropped out.

Central Medford High School, formerly Medford Opportunity High School, had a graduation rate of 11 percent in 2012, which is consistent with 2011 but an increase from 9.5 percent in 2010. Of its 117 students in 2012, 56 dropped out while 47 received a diploma after five years.

Across the state, the report shows there has been an increase in the number of students needing more than the traditional four years to earn a high school diploma. When fifth-year students are counted, the state's completion rate rises to 80 percent, says Oregon Deputy Superintendent Rob Saxton.

Saxton says he was disappointed by the 2012 numbers. Budget cuts have led districts to end programs that helped struggling students, he says.

"You put together programs you think are really strong, then the budget falls apart, and you have to cut it," says Saxton, who was superintendent of Tigard-Tualatin schools until July. "It hurt kids."

Gov. John Kitzhaber's chief education officer, Rudy Crew, says schools have to change dramatically even without new money.

"This report is begging us to change the structure of secondary schools," he says. "I want leaders saying, 'I can think of five ways I would completely change my high school,' and that has got to be a here-and-now conversation. We can't wait another year."

Both the dropout and four-year graduation rates exclude students who died, moved out of their respective school district prior to graduation, or earned a general equivalency diploma, modified diploma or alternative certificate. Non-graduates differ from dropouts in that they continue to seek a diploma.

Four-year graduation rates were low at all of the Rogue Valley's alternative schools, which are designed to help struggling and returning students. Some students received diplomas in their fifth year of high school, but most dropped out.

With none of the 58 students in its Connections Alternative School earning a diploma in four years, Eagle Point School District's on-time graduation rate dropped to 60 percent. The four students who did graduate last year from Connections Alternative School did so over five years.

Eagle Point High School's dropout rate of 50 out of 259 students resulted in a 74 percent on-time graduation rate, with 13 students receiving diplomas after five years. That is an increase from 72 percent in 2011.

In the state report released Thursday, Butte Falls School District, with its 16 seniors last year, had the Rogue Valley's highest on-time graduation rate at 88 percent, followed by Ashland, with 86 percent of its 281 seniors graduating in four years.

Ashland's rate decreased after a steady climb to 91 percent in 2011, preceded by 89 percent in 2010 and 80 percent in 2009.

"We want each student to realize his or her potential and earn a high school diploma," says Ashland High School Principal Michelle Zundel. "Increased state requirements to earn a diploma will make that task more difficult. This year's seniors must pass state tests in reading and writing in order to earn a diploma."

Prospect School District, with 23 students, had the lowest on-time graduation rate at 43 percent, followed by the Phoenix-Talent School District with 56 percent of its 241 seniors graduating.

Prospect School's 43 percent rate was consistent with its four-year rate in 2011, but almost half of its 2010 rate of 83.3 percent. In 2012, 10 students dropped out and three of the graduates were enrolled in their fifth year.

In the Phoenix-Talent district, Phoenix High School had an on-time graduation rate of 71 percent of its 187 seniors receiving diplomas, along with 13 fifth-year students. There was a 2-point drop in the on-time graduation rate of 73 percent in 2011 and 2010.

In that same district, the number of graduates at Armadillo Technical Institute was 8 percent, with 38 dropouts in a class of 52 students. One in five students received diplomas as fifth-year students. In 2011, about the same percentage of students — 8.5 — graduated in four years, a drop from 18.8 percent in 2010.

Central Point School District had 75 percent of its 365 seniors graduate in 2012, with 62 dropping out. The rate increased from 67 percent in 2011 and 71 percent in 2010.

In that district, Crater Academy of Health and Public Services had 74 percent of its 98 students graduate, with six enrolled for the fifth year. Crater Renaissance Academy had 80 percent of its 130 students receive diplomas, seven after five years of school. And Crater School of Business Innovation and Science had a 79 percent graduation rate for its 120 students, with 12 finishing after five years.

Rogue River High School, which had a class size of 89 students, had a four-year graduation rate of 69 percent, a nine-point increase from the 60 percent in 2011 but not yet matching the 75 percent rate in 2010. Three students received diplomas in their fifth year, and 25 students dropped out in 2012.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.