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Oregon grad rates still lag

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.

In Ashland, the four-year graduation rate dropped from the year before but remained much higher than the state average. About 86 percent of its 281 seniors graduated in 2012 after four years, compared to 91 percent in 2011, 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."

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

"It isn't acceptable that Oregon is the fourth worst in graduation rates and fourth in education funding," says Medford 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.

Long 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.

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.

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