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Delayed success

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Karmen Mejia-Ford has an Eagle Point High School diploma, but she's not counted among the graduates.

Instead, the Oregon Department of Education considers Mejia-Ford a dropout.

Teachers, administrators, parents and students in Jackson County have had the past week to review the state's newest graduation and dropout rates. But hidden between the data points on graduates, completers and dropouts are stories like Mejia-Ford's -- of success delayed.

A failed credit that Mejia-Ford didn’t make up combined with family difficulties landed the 18-year-old with still-unfinished requirements while her peers walked the graduation stage in June 2018.

It was an experience that makes Mejia-Ford tear up even today, just over a month after she earned her diploma from Eagle Point High School in December. The School Board held a miniature ceremony soon afterward where she collected her diploma.

"It’s just a lot to take in," she said. "That I still graduated."

By then, ODE’s 2018 dropout data was already confirmed. The diploma that now hangs on the wall above Mejia-Ford’s bed doesn’t change that.

“I don’t think it would have mattered if I graduated on time,” she said. “The fact that I graduated late makes me happy because I actually graduated. I actually did it. I took the time to push myself and say, ‘Hey, you got this.’”

Eagle Point School District’s human resources director Allen Barber said that principals and teachers track each student who doesn’t graduate by June of their senior year. They’ll encourage them to keep working to either complete a GED or finish their regular Oregon diploma.

“We have many students who don’t get their diploma in June that continue working,” he said. “When they leave your building after that graduation that they don’t make, that’s usually when the hardest work actually takes place.”

In Mejia-Ford’s case, a few teachers and administrators pushed her to keep going.

Phil Ortega, the district’s attendance and student services supervisor, was one of them, tracking her down in early summer to go over what she still needed to complete.

“I think as a community, as a county, we need ... to market the power of success in graduation,” Oretga said. “I think Karmen’s story will motivate kids who find themselves in the next two months in the same shoes.”

Summer Brandon, executive director of the Armadillo Technical Institute in Phoenix-Talent School District, also pointed to the long game when discussing how she and other school leaders gauge their educational effectiveness.

“The focus of our school is to try to catch those kids that feel like they don’t fit,” said Brandon about the public charter school. “And because they feel like they don’t fit, they may drop out later.”

Armadillo Tech tries to support those students who are headed toward dropping out with an increasingly personalized education offered in a smaller environment. A student who enters with a credit deficit can take advantage of Armadillo Tech’s Measure 98-funded credit recovery options.

Some catch up — in some cases, graduating with a diploma — but if it takes longer than four years to earn that or a GED, which Armadillo Tech began offering again this school year, that student could still be counted as a dropout in the school’s four-year cohort data.

Brandon said that it’s “not surprising” that Armadillo had the second highest dropout rate in Jackson County at 22.2 percent.

“While those numbers exist and we should be aware of them, we want to be careful that decisions we make aren’t about improving the data, but that we are really thinking about the students reflected in those numbers,” she said.

Alternative and nontraditional high schools had the highest dropout rates among Jackson County schools in 2017-2018: Eagle Point’s Upper Rogue Center for Educational Opportunity topped the list at 34.5 percent. Armadillo Tech came next with 22.2 percent. Central Medford High School was third, with 14.41 percent dropouts in its four-year cohort.

Like Armadillo Tech, Central Medford also catches many students who administrators say would probably drop out of the district otherwise. The school also offers personalized learning plans, credit recovery options and other support systems to try to keep those students enrolled.

Central Medford principal Amy Herbst said that it’s important to remember not only the school’s different methods, but also the needs of its student body.

Students attending Central Medford are often dealing with systemic barriers that interrupt their education, she said.

Over 90 percent of the students live below the poverty line, she said.

The new data from ODE, which breaks down each school’s overall rate into specific student subgroups, show that of the 333 Central Medford students counted as dropouts, all of who fell into the “economically disadvantaged” subgroup.

But economically disadvantaged students aren’t only showing up in the school’s dropout rate. The four-year graduation rate among that student group was higher even than the schoolwide rate: 31.3 percent compared to 30.2 percent.

“Our kids just plain need more help,” Herbst said. “They just need more support and more attention, and so that’s where coming to alternative high school makes more sense for kids.”

Some Central Medford graduates even leave with college credit, the costs of which the district covers through Measure 98 funds.

In Eagle Point, Ortega pushed Mejia-Ford to complete the Free Application for Student Financial Aid, which moved her one step closer toward her dream of becoming an English language arts teacher.

“My motivation personally is my own story,” she said. “It’s me becoming someone who I should have been in June, but it doesn’t matter that I graduated late. Because I still graduated. I still put the effort in to become a high school graduate.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneKarmen Mejia-Ford graduated from Eagle Point High School in December, after initially being counted as a dropout.
Karmen Mejia-Ford describes what it felt like to learn that she would not graduate on time — and then, months later, what if felt like when she earned her diploma. Kaylee Tornay/Mail Tribune