Graduation rates in Astoria and Seaside slumped by about 10 percent last year in figures released by the state Department of Education. But local officials, including Seaside High School Principal Jeff Roberts and Astoria High School Principal Lynn Jackson, are scratching their heads over the numbers.
Astoria and Seaside, Clatsop County’s two largest school districts, each averaged more than 74 percent in 2016. But Astoria slipped to 63.3 percent last year, and Seaside to 66.7 percent.
“There’s a 7 percent discrepancy from my numbers to their numbers,” Jackson said, estimating his district’s four-year graduation rate at between 70 and 72 percent.
About five students counted by the state as dropouts had graduated last year, while several others had moved out of the school district, Jackson said.
The state defines on-time graduation as finishing in four years. Statewide, 76.7 percent of seniors finished with a diploma in four years, a nearly 2 percent increase from 2016 but still among the worst graduation rates in the nation. The national graduation rate in 2016 was 84 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The state’s numbers say 41 Seaside students did not graduate, using that number for calculations. That number should have been much lower, Roberts said.
Roberts said 133 students entered as freshmen at Seaside High School in 2013-14. Over the course of the four-year period that is measured the district had 24 of those students leave with codes that the Department of Education considers as drop-outs or not finishing in four years.
Some of those should not be considered dropouts, Roberts said.
“My math tells me that is 18 percent of that class that dropped out in that time frame, 31 of those 133 students left Seaside High School at some point to pursue their education in a manner that was deemed not to be considered a dropout, per ODE, which could include completing a GED program, transferring to another school in state, transferring to another school out of state, or enrolling in online school,” Roberts said.
If that number had been used, the graduation rate would have been similar to previous years, about 76 percent.
Warrenton-Hammond, the county’s third-largest and fastest-growing school district, posted a 76.2 percent four-year graduation rate last year, continuing a steady increase stretching back at least six years.
Warrenton High School Principal Rod Heyen estimated his graduation rate at 80 percent, equating to two or three more students than the state counted, but said overall he is pleased with the district’s progress.
Warrenton regularly averages the highest rate of student homelessness in the county, with many students forced to share housing with family and friends out of economic need. Heyen credited district staff and community partners for providing the necessary support such as food and clothing to keep students going to school.
“I want every kid to graduate and to go through, but sometimes life gets in the way,” Heyen said, recounting one student who quit school to get a job and help his mother keep their apartment.
Knappa High School improved from a 70 percent four-year graduation rate in 2016 to 90 percent last year, by far the highest in the county. The district’s figures fluctuate significantly with small class sizes, but have improved five years in a row from 64 percent in the 2012-13 school year. Out of 32 seniors last year, 29 finished in four years with a diploma.
Knappa High School Principal Laurel Smalley said there’s no one magic bullet, but that the district has experienced a culture shift toward valuing education.
“Last year’s class was really academically motivated,” she said. “They really wanted to graduate.”
The graduation figures of Jewell, a tiny rural school district in the southeastern corner of the county, fluctuate wildly, with class sizes often below 15 students. The district graduated six out of eight students last year, according to the state.
The state also counts students who earned extended diplomas or pass a GED exam as completers, 10 of whom bumped the county’s high school completion rate slightly above 70 percent, compared to slightly more than 80 percent statewide.
For the first time, the state broke out the graduation rates of students who participated in career-technical education programs. The hands-on, industry connected programs have expanded over recent years as an educational carrot to interest students. The graduation rate for such students was 10 percent higher statewide, and even more so in Astoria, where such students had an 80 percent graduation rate.
Career-technical programs are valuable, but not causal to the graduation rate, Jackson said. “One factor is that students attracted to those programs are already very engaged,” he said.
Voters in 2016 approved about $800 per student through Measure 98 to improve dropout prevention, collegiate offerings and career-technical programs. The state Legislature funded the measure at about $400 per student.
The measure’s funding has been used by school districts for freshmen advising. Freshmen who stay on track and average good grades are dramatically more likely to graduate. Schools should start seeing significant dividends from Measure 98 funding by 2020, Jackson said.
Seaside has yet to approach the state about the discrepancy. Meanwhile, they intend to work to improve their graduation rates.
“Our goal will always be for 100 percent of students to earn a high school diploma,” Roberts added. “It is certainly a concern and will remain a concern until we are able to work with our staff, parents, the students and community partners to consistently ensure our students earn a high school diploma.”
R.J. Marx contributed to this article.