A North Salem High School graduate at an August 2020 ceremony (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Erik Jespersen was worried about his students’ grades in fall 2020.

With a week left to go during the first quarter of online school, the McNary High School principal saw far more students failing classes than typical. Without correction, that meant high school graduation was in jeopardy for many.

But state data released Thursday shows students and educators at the Keizer high school were able to turn the tide, at least for the class of 2021.

McNary recorded a 96.2% graduation rate, up from 91% in 2020, and 83% five years ago. 

It’s the highest of any district high school, and among the highest in Oregon. That means 459 students out of a senior class of 477 earned a diploma in four years.

The school’s high graduation rate held for nearly every group of students. Students with disabilities, migrant students, low-income students and Latino students all graduated at rates above 95%, state data shows.

“We want to be a high school that is seen as a laboratory for other schools,” said Jespersen, who was named Oregon’s high school principal of the year in 2021. “I’m proud of our kids and our staff for doing whatever it takes.”

Junior ROTC outside McNary High School on Oct. 6, 2021 (Mary Louise VanNatta/Special to Salem Reporter)

The Salem-Keizer School District in 2021 had an 81% graduation rate overall, the same as in 2020, with just over 2,600 high school seniors in Salem and Keizer graduating. 

Despite higher rates of failing grades, more absences and the challenges students faced navigating a global pandemic, graduation rates didn’t decline - a sign district administrators said was encouraging.

But the numbers also illuminate differences in how local students and their high schools fared during a year of online school.

Of the district’s six major high schools, only McNary posted an increase in graduation rates for the class of 2021.

Rates were flat at South Salem (92%) and Sprague (93%) and declined slightly at McKay (81%) and West (93%).

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

North Salem High School, which has historically had the district’s lowest graduation rate, declined about five percentage points, with 77.7% of seniors graduating in 2021. That’s down from 83% in 2020, though still higher than the school’s 67% rate five years ago.

What worked at McNary

In the district and across Oregon, urban high schools with the highest graduation rates often have more affluent student bodies. McNary bucks that trend - 69% of last year’s senior class was low-income, state data shows, putting it in the middle of Salem-Keizer’s six major high schools. The student body is about half white and 38% Latino.

Jespersen said the school’s educators have for years worked to build systems to quickly identify students who are falling behind academically and help keep them connected to school.

Ken Ramirez, community outreach specialist, checks in with Bryan Masasi, a junior at McNary High School, during a home visit on Thursday, October 8, 2020 (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

As a freshman, each McNary student is assigned a teacher who serves as their advisor for all four years of high school. The goal is to prevent students from feeling overwhelmed if they need help by giving them a clear place to ask. Jespersen said that worked well when schools abruptly shifted online and many students disengaged completely from their work.

“Having that one single point of contact was really really helpful for us,” Jespersen said.

He’s also made an effort to hire more school employees who are bilingual in Spanish and English and can connect with Spanish-speaking families.

The school ran a large in-person instruction program before other district schools reopened, with about 800 students weekly getting in-person help with classes and missing assignments.

North students take longer to graduate

At North, the graduation decline in 2021 was largest among groups of students who already graduate at lower rates than school and district averages: migrant students, those learning English and students with disabilities. Just half of North’s 16 Pacific Islander seniors graduated on time, down from 82% the year before.

But the school did record a bright spot in 2021. The share of students graduating high school in five years was up to 86.4%, compared to 80.6% in 2020.

Principal Chad Towe, who came to North in summer 2020 from Thurston High School in Springfield, said he believes the shift to online school, plus the family and work responsibilities many of his students took on during the pandemic, all played a role in students struggling to complete a diploma.

North Salem High School Principal Chad Towe (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Among district high schools, North has the highest share of students from low-income families: 97% of the senior class, state data shows. One in five weren’t fluent in English when they entered high school, and 60% are not native English speakers.

“Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by Covid so we are seeing that in school data as well,” Towe said.

Districtwide, 2021 graduation rates were generally flat for white and Latino students, who make up the vast majority of the district, as well as Black and multiracial students. Asian and Native American students recorded small increases, while graduation rates declined among Pacific Islander seniors.

At North, the graduation rate increased to 83.6% for white students and declined for every other racial and ethnic group.

Even before the pandemic, administrators at North said family obligations and work often led to students missing class and sometimes struggling to graduate. Many students have to take on jobs to help their families pay bills and are responsible for caring for younger siblings.

Larry Ramirez, the district’s director of high schools, said the pandemic magnified those challenges for many of North’s students. But the school’s increase in students graduating after five years is a sign kids aren’t giving up on school.

“Kids kind of had to slow down their progress or put their progress toward graduation on pause,” Ramirez said. “Some of those kids didn’t make it in four years, but they’re sticking with us.”

He said several years ago, students who didn’t graduate in four years were often reluctant to come back to class as “super seniors” and finish their diplomas. The fact that more are doing so is a good sign.

What’s ahead

Towe said this year, his biggest challenge at North is getting students to come to school.

“The issue that we're spending a lot of our time on is getting students to school. I think once we get them here, we can connect them, we can engage them, we can support them,” he said.

District attendance rates have been lower across the board this year, and generally under 80% since students returned from winter break. School officials said that’s due to the omicron surge, both because more students are getting sick, and some students and families are choosing to keep kids home out of fears of getting infected.

Just 58% of North students were in class on Thursday, a district dashboard shows - among the lowest attendance rates of any district school. Districtwide, 77% of students were in class.

Student mentor Yilda Yamilex Molina-Cruz, right, gives directions to senior Atziry Velazquez on the first day of school at North Salem High School on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Towe said his educators are working to stay in touch with kids and preventing them from being automatically dropped under a state rule that disenrolls students who miss 10 consecutive days of school.

Despite McNary’s gains, Jespersen said he’s worried the impacts of the pandemic will hit current high school students harder.

Though the class of 2021 finished their senior year online, those students also had two and a half normal years of high school before their classes abruptly shifted online and they lost out on social and extracurricular activities.

Now, he said, educators have to find ways to help students who began high school during a pandemic and didn’t get a chance to establish study skills or school routines in a “normal” setting. Helping students adjust back to school this year has been challenging, at McNary and across the district and state.

“We cannot rest on our laurels at all,” Jespersen said.

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

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