Local high schools graduated four out of five seniors last year, a slight decline that comes after years of steady growth.
The 2,587 students who earned diplomas in 2023 gave the Salem-Keizer School District a 79.1% graduation rate, according to data released Thursday by the Oregon Department of Education. That’s about the same as the pre-pandemic 2019 graduation rate of 79.13%, and down slightly from 2022’s rate of 79.8%.
Salem continues to have a slightly lower graduation rate than the state, which recorded an 81.3% graduation rate in 2023. But the district showed improvements in graduating Black and Pacific Islander students — two groups that had some of the largest declines in graduation during the pandemic.
“We did make some good growth with some student groups, but our overall needs to continue to improve. There’s always that opportunity that I know our schools see and feel as well as well,” said Larry Ramirez, high school director for the Salem-Keizer School District.
The Class of 2023’s time in high school was marked by the Covid pandemic. Most graduates entered high school in the fall of 2019 and had classes hastily moved online in the midst of their freshman year.
Seniors in the class of 2020 automatically graduated if they were passing required classes when schools closed in March. The state that year also suspended a requirement that students demonstrate proficiency in essential skills through standardized tests, saying students already demonstrate those skills by earning the 24 credits required to graduate.
That decision has been a political flashpoint, with critics arguing a high school diploma means little if students can’t demonstrate reading, math and writing skills on tests.
Ramirez said the pandemic had a significant impact on students’ success. Freshmen had little time to adjust to high school coursework or get used to attending classes in a new school before they were thrust into social isolation and online courses.
“The routine and the habits of school were lost for a time,” Ramirez said.
Student attendance has been a focus within the district and across Oregon since regular attendance plummeted during the pandemic. Last school year, about half of Salem-Keizer students were chronically absent, meaning they missed 10% or more of school days.
“We really have to recover from the effects of the pandemic and get people back in school on time, all day every day so that our students can maximize learning,” said Charlene Williams, director of the Oregon Department in Education, in a news conference Tuesday discussing the graduation data.
Salem schools graduate more recent immigrants
State data shows several bright spots for Salem schools. More homeless students are graduating on time, with 108 earning a diploma in 2023. That’s 57.3%, up from 49.2% in 2022.
Across Oregon, there remains a gap in graduation rates between Latino and white students, but in Salem, the gap has nearly vanished. The district in 2023 graduated 79.2% of Latino students and 79.6% of white students. The two are the largest racial groups in the district by far.
The state for the first time this year tabulated a graduation rate for “recent arrivers” — students who immigrated to the U.S. within the past three years.
Data shows Salem schools do a better job helping those students earn diplomas. Local high schools graduated 71.6% of newly arriving students, versus 63.3% statewide.
Ramirez said that reflects an effort about two years ago to revamp newcomer programs at district high schools.
Students often arrive in the U.S. speaking little or no English, but with substantial experience studying math, literature and other core subjects in their native languages.
Previously, the district required them to focus first on English proficiency — classes that improved their language skills, but didn’t count toward graduation requirements.
Now, Ramirez said schools work to get students into math, history, science and other core classes appropriate to their skills when possible and give them extra help to understand the material.
“They’re learning English still and getting that support, but they’re also accumulating credits that are core credits. They’re not just spending all day trying to learn English,” Ramirez said.
Challenges at North, South
North Salem High School again posted the lowest graduation rate of the district’s six comprehensive high schools, with 77.2% of students graduating in four years.
The school has had less stability in staffing, with three principals in the past five years, which Ramirez said likely contributed to the lower rate.
Principal Dustin Purnell is in his first year at North after eight years leading the neighboring Parrish Middle School.
He said school staff are dialing in their work, identifying struggling students and checking in to support them, with a particular focus on freshmen adjusting to high school and students about to graduate.
“We don’t want them getting behind as freshmen,” he said.
This year, he said there’s been a school-wide focus on teaching strategies that help students not fluent in English engage in classes, while benefiting all students. Those include using guided discussions among students in class to talk about academic topics, rather than just having classes based on lectures or reading.
Attendance is also a challenge, Purnell said.
“We’re really trying to promote students being here because our attendance rates are so low right now,” said.
South Salem High School recorded a significant drop in its graduation rate, from 90.5% in 2022 to 84.8% last year.
Ramirez said the school is implementing new classes to better prepare students for the demanding college-level International Baccalaureate courses the school offers, something school leaders believe will help more students stay on track.
Five-year graduations strong
Salem high schools with the lowest graduation rates perform significantly better over five years.
Ramirez said that’s a sign of success. It means students who don’t earn a diploma their senior year aren’t dropping out.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep kids engaged and coming back even if it takes another semester or a whole academic year or a summer,” he said.
At North Salem, 84.2% of kids earn a diploma in five years, seven percentage points higher than the four-year rate. It’s slightly higher than the state five-year graduation rate of 83.8%.
South’s five-year graduation rate is substantially higher, at 93.4%.
“Give us some time, we’ll get them there, we promise,” Ramirez said.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.