Saturday, February 8, 2014

In rural Oregon, an education crisis slowly strangles Baker County

I graduated from Baker High School, located in Baker City in Baker County, Oregon. I've written in the past about what it was like to come from that educational background to the high standards of Macalester College. The short answer is: it was hard. I felt (and still feel) robbed of key opportunities most of my classmates had.

A Statewide Problem

Despite being an allegedly progressive place, Oregon is one of the worst states in the union when it comes to school performance. We have the second shortest school year in the country, averaging at a mere 170 days. The year after I graduated, my high school moved to a four-day system, meaning students attend school only Monday through Thursday, despite evidence that this hurts kids.

As a state, Oregon has the second lowest high-school graduation rate in the nation, at 69%. In Baker School District the number sits at 60%. The latest Oregonian report on Oregon's lack of progress in improving graduation rates notes that many of the schools seeing a decline in graduation rates are rural, even as inner-city schools made gains:
Large stretches of rural Oregon, however, experienced stagnation or drops in their graduation rates. Some of that was due to increased enrollment in alternative schools, which rarely graduate students within four years.
I find myself writing in frustration about this issue again after reading this report in the Oregonian recently. After a massive investigation, the Oregonian uncovered that many high schools in Oregon have astoundingly high rates of absenteeism. Oregon has more absentee students (those who miss 10% or more of school days per year) than any other state that has conducted such a survey.

Ten percent doesn't sound like much. But it it turns out that missing that much school makes a huge difference on the likelihood that kid will graduate from high school:
A study of 21,000 students in Illinois found that absenteeism, not standardized test scores, could be used to pinpoint which students would fail multiple classes in freshman year — and which would earn a diploma. Once freshmen missed 10 percent of school days, their odds of graduating dropped below 40 percent.
Baker County Loses Ground

The Oregonian report revealed several disturbing facts about Baker County's schools:
  • Baker High School has a chronic absenteeism rate of 35.5%.
  • Among low-income students (47% of the student body) that rate jumps to 40.8%
  • Baker Middle School is the worst middle school in Eastern Oregon when it comes to absenteeism: 30.5 percent of students are chronically absent:
Credit: (click to enlarge)
Baker School District's Web Academy is the worst school in the district by far: An atrocious 73% (almost three fourths!) of students are chronically absent. I'm not sure how a digital school (one that will happily waive any physical interaction with students at all!) even counts attendance. But horrific issues are suggested by the school's appalling graduation rates: only 19% of Web Academy students graduate. I'll repeat that for emphasis: four out of five students there will not graduate from high school.
It's no surprise that so much chronic absenteeism is impacting district's broader graduation rates and college preparedness: overall, only 60% of 5J students graduate high school. 

A disturbing number of Baker 5J students are not prepared for college at all: Last year, only 27% of graduating students took the SAT for college admissions, compared to 35% in similar Oregon school districts. That means that out of all 299 students in Baker 5J's class of 2013 graduating cohort, only about 16% were on track to possibly get any kind of four year college degree. Given that only about 30% of students enrolling in public Oregon 4-year schools ever graduate, maybe 5% of the graduating cohort of 2013 will ever achieve a 4-year degree.

For comparison, according to Census data, about 14% of Baker County residents currently have a 4-year degree or better. Even if we assume that every Baker 5J student who graduated from college returned to the county (and many don't), we're still not getting any closer to the goal of a productive, well trained labor force in the county - we're getting farther away. And we're nowhere close to achieving Governor Kitzhaber's ambitious goal of having 40% of the population have a four year degree

Excuses and Excuses

When confronted about the huge issues at the Web Academy and in the district at large, the response of Baker 5J officials is to offer a lot of complaints about the state's statistics. They offered this bit of wisdom to the Baker City Herald in 2012:
Superintendent Walt Wegener turns to a quote attributed to Mark Twain — “There are liars, damned liars and statisticians” — to express his opinion about the state Department of Education’s rating system for Oregon schools.
and this brilliance in 2013:
Superintendent Walt Wegener says the year-to-year comparison makes no sense. 
“These scores all stand by themselves,” he said. “It’s unfair to look at 11-12 and see what we did in 12-13.
For all the complaints about the state's rankings system, those rankings are apparently good enough to use when they can be twisted into something that sounds good about the district. This quote comes from Walt Wegner's message in the district's 2012-2013 ODE report card:
In the 2012-2013 school year, Baker 5J had three schools with Level 5 rating, [two of them model schools], three Level 4 schools, two Level 3 and one Level 2 school. Overall our students are exhibiting very strong comparative results.
Gee, I thought those ratings systems were so unfair?

Why does the Baker Web Academy still operate?

The performance of the district is also often blamed entirely on the Web Academy's failure, often coupled with pretending that the Web Academy's performance is not at all related to the district at large. School Board Member Mark Henderson, in a public response to concerns I raised several years ago, wrote the following in the Baker City Herald:
... in regards to the Baker 5J ratings on The Oregonian's website, let me just say that the real story is a little more complicated. The Oregonian's ratings are based on a district-wide average, and this average includes the Baker Web Academy as a Baker 5J-sponsored charter school. While this is an important venue, it is not our typical Baker 5J school (they have their own, independent school board).
Of course, the Web Academy (the district's second largest) has made almost no meaningful improvement over the entire course of the time it has operated. Over the last four years, not a single Web Academy student has ever taken the SAT, according to the school's ODE report card. The school's graduation rate has never been higher than 19%. 

That raises the interesting question of why the Web Academy continue to operate at all? After four years of horrific failure, shouldn't that program be shut down? It's obviously an embarrassing dropout factory, with test scores, attendance, and graduation rates that would humiliate even the poorest of inner-city schools.

My suspicion is that the Web Academy has become a convenient dumping ground for students whose academic or attendance track record is so bad they stand no chance of graduating from Baker High School. I suspect that when students enter BHS and suffer from spotty attendance and/or begin failing classes, they either decide to or are encouraged to try the Web Academy. Unfortunately, the school district does not publish any information about how many students transferred to the Web Academy from Baker High School, so there's no way to investigate this with the information available. There's not even any information available about how many of the students in this program are physically located in Baker County, which would at least offer an estimate of how the school's poor graduation rate impact's the local community.

Now What?

The Oregonian published a number of steps that other school districts have taken to beat back absenteeism and increase graduation rates:
[Clackamas High School leaders] have formed a web designed to catch every student who misses 16 classes, the equivalent of four days of school. They check on red-flagged students every day, telling them how much they care about their success.
They hand out candy and high-fives to students who show. But students who keep skipping may find a parent or grandparent escorting them to class for a day or more. The school even takes families to court, where a judge can impose a $500 fine.
[...] By the end of the school year, Clackamas High’s chronic absenteeism rate stood at 12 percent, fourth-best among big high schools. 
When it comes to college readiness, schools smaller than Baker High have taken radical steps to increase college attendance. Tiny Corbett School District, where the high school graduates just 60 students a year, now requires all students to be accepted at a post-secondary community college, trade institution, or four-year college in order to graduate. The students are aided by a school that demands (and receives) high levels of performance from all students:
All high school students are required to take at least six Advanced Placement courses, and the school pays for all juniors to take the SAT at the school.
I went ahead sent a short email summarizing some of these issues to the Baker 5J school board, asking them to respond (which until May of this year was notoriously dysfunctional). Will they show the same level of innovation leaders in other areas of the state have shown? I'll post their responses here.

I've already received the following response from Kyle Knight:
We will be discussing the four day week and many other subjects later this February. I share your concerns and hope we can address these issues.

Not exactly a detailed roadmap to success. But we'll see what, if anything, other school board officials have to say.

Please: Pressure the 5J Board to act by sharing this article on Twitter and Facebook.

Update (2/9): Richard McKim of the 5-J Board's response can be found here.

Update (2/10): Andrew Bryan also emailed me a response, but it contained a confidentiality notice at the bottom. For liability reasons, I will not be publishing the contents of his email.

Update (2/17): I have subsequently been informed Andrew Bryan's response is the final response to my email - you can find it here.

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