Rosa Rivera, counselor at North Salem High School, talks to a student during an advisory period. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

North Salem High School counselor Rosa Rivera was all business as she addressed the seniors trickling in to the school’s upstairs auditorium.

“Do you have your schedule?” she asked, checking each student’s piece of paper before asking them to sit down.

With two weeks before the end of first semester, Rivera and other counselors were hard at work to ensure their charges were on track to graduate. Her task that Thursday morning: make sure everyone’s second semester course load had the classes they needed to earn a diploma.

These brief check-ins with students are the backbone of a strategy school and district leaders say is behind a jump in graduation rates at Salem-Keizer high schools that have traditionally struggled: North and McKay High School.

At both schools, 77 percent of seniors graduated last year. That’s a jump from just 68 percent at North in 2017, and 73 percent at McKay in 2017.

“We’re really excited for the progress we’re making,” said Larry Ramirez, the district’s director of high school education.

Last year, both schools launched a plan to target what staff called “bubble seniors” – students for whom graduation was possible, but likely to be a challenge. Most needed to pass every class they were taking to earn enough credits, and many were failing or in danger of failing some courses.

North principal Sara LeRoy said every year, she sees seniors who could have graduated slip through the cracks.

“It always bothered me when you see these kids that weren’t dropouts but just didn’t graduate,” she said. “Where did they go? What happened? How did we not catch them?”

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Counselors and administrators at each school put together a list of students who needed a boost to graduate. At McKay, such students were assigned a mentor or counselor to check in regularly and get students the help they needed.

That included tutoring and communication with families about attendance and missing work.

“It was a statement we made in the community – we love you too much to not let you graduate,” said Rob Schoepper, McKay’s principal.

At North, staff asked students to identify an adult at school who could advocate for them. That person could be a teacher, counselor or in some cases, a security guard.

The question for students was, “Who in this building is going to help you through this?” LeRoy said.

Over 10 weeks in the spring, each school worked intensely with those seniors to keep them on track. Each school hired a retired administrator to oversee the effort, and Mountain West Investment Corp. paid for some extra staffing costs.

Advocates worked with seniors during and outside of school hours, nudging them toward turning in late assignments and discussing how to get caught up with teachers.

They stayed up-to-date on the seniors’ lives, helping them work through obstacles. In one case, staff called a student’s boss to talk about how the student’s work schedule was interfering with homework and could impede graduation.

“The employer had no idea that that was on the line,” LeRoy said. Once they did, they were happy to help.

Between the two schools, 63 seniors targeted for extra help walked across the stage and earned a diploma with their classmates: 20 from North and 43 from McKay.

There’s no way to know what would have happened to those students without the extra help, but both principals said it’s unlikely all would have graduated.

The district spent about $14,400 on the effort, or less than $230 per graduate.

This year, both schools are taking the same approach, with some tweaks based on what they learned in 2018. Both principals started identifying seniors earlier this year so staff weren’t rushing to get everyone on track over the span of just a few months.

North has added a half-hour advisory period to its class schedule twice a week. It’s a time for students to get academic help and career and college counseling. Rivera and other counselors now use those periods to check in with seniors and monitor progress toward graduation.

Targeting seniors close to graduating is a shift in the district’s approach to boosting graduation rates, said Linda Myers, the district director of strategic initiatives.

Previous efforts have focused on engaging dropouts rather than working with students who haven’t yet reached that point.

The goal is “catching them earlier, not waiting until they’ve left us to go out and find them,” she said.

Other district high schools are looking at creating similar efforts to target seniors, and district leaders would like to see the same approach expanded down to freshmen.

“How are we getting those students back on track and having a plan?” Ramirez said.

Disclosure: Mountain West Investment Corp. is owned by Larry Tokarski, a co-founder of Salem Reporter

Reporter Rachel Alexander: (503) 575-1241 or [email protected]

A note from our editor: Thank you for reading another example of our local journalism. This kind of work takes paid professionals and we rely on subscribers to support this work. If you haven't yet signed on as a Salem Reporter subscriber, please ensure you get more of these kinds of stories with your subscription: Click HEREThank you. -- Les Zaitz, editor