McKay High School senior Joseph Jacobsen works with assistant principal Aaron Johnson and science teacher Lori Hunt on August 18, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Lori Hunt glanced from her phone to a spiral-bound notebook on the desk in front of her.

“I just got hung up on,” said the McKay High School science teacher.

She paused for a moment, then dialed another number. After the voicemail tone, she explained to a parent that she was trying to help their son finish his high school diploma.

“If he can come just one day at Stevens Middle School, he can get his marine science credit done,” she said.

Hunt is one of several McKay teachers and administrators spending August in the classroom, helping seniors who are a few classes shy of graduating finish their work before a state deadline of Aug. 31. After that point, seniors must enroll in a fifth year of high school to earn a diploma.

Tuesday’s outreach efforts were largely bust, but Hunt said three of the 10 seniors she’s working with have already finished the science requirements they were missing after only a few days. And Hunt isn’t giving up.

“Teachers always want 100%,” she said.

Last year, McKay educators launched the program as a way to boost the school’s graduation rate, which was just 77% in 2018. Principal Rob Schoepper described the effort as “whatever it takes” and took the slogan literally. At least once, he showed up on a student’s doorstep and knocked until she got out of bed and headed for the school library to work on her U.S. history assignment.

The August push yielded eight additional graduates for the McKay Class of 2019, helping boost the graduation rate to 84%.

But this year, the economic impacts of the pandemic on already-struggling families have made it harder for educators to reach some students.

“That’s been a mountain to climb,” said Ronnie Brooks, McKay’s parent outreach coordinator.

Ronnie Brooks, parent outreach coordinator at McKay High School, reviews student records on August 18, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Even without a pandemic, McKay educators report their students are often juggling school with other responsibilities.

Almost two-thirds of students at the high school grew up speaking a language other than English, and most come from low-income families. It’s not unusual to discover that a student struggling academically is working a full-time job or caring for younger siblings or older relatives.

When school stopped abruptly in mid-March and resumed online in mid-April, McKay educators knew some students were likely to drop off their radar. Assistant principal Ricardo Larios organized a “knock and connect” campaign, sending about 15 school workers well known in the community, like Brooks, to families’ doorsteps if teachers couldn’t reach them online or over the phone.

Sometimes, Brooks found a student’s school-issued laptop had stopped working. Other times, families had moved or no longer had Internet access because they couldn’t afford the bill. Students sometimes missed scheduled virtual appointments because they slept in after working swing shifts.

“A lot of our kids are working full-time jobs, which has a huge impact on them being able to do the work,” he said.

Some seniors who didn’t finish classes in the spring instead completed them in summer school, which was all virtual this year. But for some, one-on-one help from a teacher in a classroom is essential.

Hunt said providing that help is what she loves about her job. She has been a teacher in Salem-Keizer since 2005. She taught virtual summer school, helping students finish work in astronomy, biology, marine science and physical science. In the spring, she connected with a freshman over his large collection of Legos, building rapport before taking the conversation back to astronomy.

“They’re not going to care about anything you have to teach until they know you care about them. Especially online,” Hunt said.

If she’s not teaching, she said, “I get bored. I love working with students.” Even if the topic isn’t science, Hunt said she’s always willing to help as much as she can.

Lori Hunt, a science teacher at McKay High School, calls students a few credits shy of graduation on Aug. 18, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

On Tuesday, after making her calls, she sat with senior Joseph Jacobsen at a table as he worked on an economics assignment.

Jacobsen, 18, lives with his great-grandmother and said he struggled in the spring without regular help with school.

“It was very hard to do homework when I was not here,” he said.

He’d like to go into landscaping after graduating and said his family urged him to make the effort in August so he didn’t have to spend another semester in high school.

He’d finished a photography class Tuesday morning, with help from assistant principal Aaron Johnson. Jacobsen learned he could use his school-issued laptop to take photos and worked through an assignment on color theory.

“We’re halfway there!” Johnson announced, as he and Jacobsen walked back to the classroom.

The McKay team is now working with about a dozen seniors, Schoepper said.

Hunt was optimistic that with persistence and care, she’ll get the students on her list to graduate.

“My business is: what can we do to help you in the time that you have?” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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