ODE: Sweet Home grad rate above state average

Benny Westcott

According to Oregon Department of Education data from the 2020-2021 school year, Sweet Home School District’s graduation rate continues to exceed the state average, as it had the previous year, despite dropping 5.1 percentage points from 2019-2020.

The ODE reported that 82.4% of Sweet Home High School seniors graduated on time in 2021, down from 87.5% the previous year. The percentage of seniors graduating statewide also fell, albeit at a lower rate than Sweet Home. Some 80.6% of Oregonian high school seniors graduated on-time in 2021, down from 82.6% in 2020.

“We never want our graduation rate to drop, but we were also facing half a year of the pandemic during that school year, when there were stressors from a transition in learning,” Supt. Lisa Riggs said. “We have to move forward in learning despite this – our community is going to see the pandemic hitting this year and next year and the year after that. We need to recalibrate to get back to where we were.”

“We want to continue supporting students, continue our improvement planning and ensure students make credit up if they are falling behind,” she continued. “We want to encourage them that it’s never too late to learn.”

Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill attributed the statewide drop in graduation rates to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“For most students in Oregon, they got instruction delivered in an entirely new way that was entirely new to the educators and entirely new to the students – for their entire senior year of school,” he said.

“These students, like others in 2020 that were impacted, did overcome some pretty tremendous challenges in accessing their education, and still made it happen alongside educators who worked really hard to support them in pretty unprecedented circumstances.”

Despite the decline, Sweet Home still boasted the highest on-time graduation percentage among Linn County’s school districts with at least 100 graduates. At 82.4%, Sweet Home sits above Scio’s 80%, Albany’s 79.9%, Lebanon’s 77.3%, and Santiam Canyon/Oregon Charter Academy’s 56.2%. Its student groups with the highest graduation rates included Hispanic/Latinos (92.3%), females (90.1%) and the economically disadvantaged (82.6%).

“We are happy that we are above the state average and No. 1 in the county (in graduation rates),” Riggs said. “We have to recognize the stress and strain of teachers and the time they’ve had to devote to teaching during the pandemic in order to continue to be above the state average.”

The ODE’s yearly report cards, which were mandated by the 1999 state Legislature to allow educators to communicate directly with parents and community members about the performance of local schools, also included information on the district’s demographics, staff and students’ post-secondary plans.

The report showed that, according to the degree and enrollment verification nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse, some 55% of local 2018 graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year institution within 16 months, a tally seven points below the 62% state average.

Riggs noted that the community of Sweet Home “really supports CTE (career technology education) pathways. While the college-bound track is absolutely commendable for those that are interested, many students want to pursue CTE pathways like forestry, construction and welding.”

According to the report, the district was composed of 2,170 students and 123 teachers – 71% of licensed instructors boasted more than three years of experience –during the 2020-21 school year, under former superintendent Tom Yahraes. It included 12 administrators, 62 educational assistants, eight counselors and two psychologists. The report noted that the district had no licensed librarians.

Riggs noted that the latter was a reality in the school buildings, but added that Director of Instructional Technology Colleen Henry, who works in the administration building, has her librarian’s license.

“It is difficult to find (licensed librarians) in the state these days,” Riggs said, adding that Portland State University no longer offers the program.

About 84% of its students and 94% of teachers identified as white. Other classifications included Hispanic/Latino (7% students, 5% teachers), multiracial (7% students, no teachers), American Indian/Alaskan Native (2% students, no teachers and Asian (1% students and teachers). Less than 1% of the student population identified as Black/African-American or Pacific Islander.

Of the student population, 19% were disabled and 15% were considered “mobile,” or homeless. About 94% of students qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch.

The study also broke down data on an individual school-by-school basis within the district.

Holley Elementary had the highest percentage of licensed teachers with more than three years of experience, at 89%, followed by Oak Heights (88%), the High School (74%), Sweet Home Charter School (71%), Hawthorne (68%), the Junior High (60%) and Foster Elementary (53%).

Hawthorne saw the highest teacher retention rate percentage at 92%, followed by Foster (89%), the High School (85%), Holley (83%), Oak Heights (82%), the Charter School (77%) and the Junior High (75%).

“Retention has gone down everywhere,” Riggs said. “What you’ll see nationally is a high number of districts in need of hiring. The number of people graduating in teaching fields in Oregon does not nearly cover the demand for teachers. So we are starting to look externally to different states.”

She also noted that “nothing is better than growing your own,” citing educational courses the district is looking to bring in to perhaps prepare interested students to some day work for the district, one of the largest employers in Sweet Home.

Even in the face of falling graduation rates, Riggs struck a positive note for the future. “We are working on a rebound plan. We have to rebound through the pandemic.”