By John L. Braese
ONTARIO – Seven seniors of Ontario High School gathered in a classroom to discuss the changes seen over their last four years of school.
Three of the seven will be the first to receive a high school diploma in their family. All seven plan on pursuing education after making the graduation walk.
One admits he is behind in credits and considered dropping out as his junior year came to a close. He is now making up those classes in time to graduate.
“A lot has changed at Ontario High School,” said senior Leslie Serrano. “There is so much support here. It feels like a totally different school from when I was a freshman.”
The changes are reflected in the most recent graduation rates issued by the state, showing strong increases at the Ontario school over the prior year.
Statewide last year 75 percent of high school seniors graduated – more than 51,000. That was a one percent increase from the year before and remains a key benchmark for parents, politicians and public officials to gauge how local schools are performing.
Of 12 schools that graduated every senior, three are in Malheur County — Adrian, Harper and Jordan Valley.
The Oregon Department of Education’s recent data shows, however, that almost one in four students starting high school did not pick up a diploma.
At Ontario, the new state data was good news.
In 2016, 82 percent of students walked the graduation line. That increased to 89 percent in 2017.
The success is even more pronounced among Latino students in Ontario. In 2016, 78 percent received a high school diploma. That number jumped to 89 percent in 2017.
“I really was not that serious about school the first three years,” said senior Chris Sanchez. “I got behind by nine credits and really considered dropping out last year. My mom sat me down and made me see how important is was to finish high school.”
Sanchez is getting back on track due to Ontario’s credit recovery program. In addition to his usual classes, Sanchez is taking on extra to make up for his mistakes of the past.
He is now on track to graduate this spring.
“I plan on going on to cosmetology school after graduation,” he said.
“We have made changes, but the increasing rates are due to hard work in the trenches,” said Jodi Elizondo, Ontario High School principal. Elizondo said the major change has been holding everyone accountable for getting students to finish. This includes administrators, teachers and students.
“There has been a culture shift in the school and that thinking comes directly from the district,” Elizondo said.
Before expecting more from the students, Elizondo started with her own staff.
“We have done strategic hiring to get the right people here in the classrooms,” she said. “Once the right people are in front of the students, we have increased expectations, behavior and attendance from the kids.”
Elizondo said the school has safeguards to ensure students are recognized for good progress and get help when slipping. She credits programs as such as English Language Development, the alternative school, parenting teens and a video constantly running in the front foyer showing positives in the school.
“We have in place layers of protection to make sure the students are receiving what they need,” she said.
Next year’s incoming freshman will see a revival of an old program. A freshman academy will introduce students to high school life and outline what it will take to graduate.
“We are focused on offering more opportunities for our students,” Elizondo said. “We are now talking about things we can change rather than concentrate on things we cannot change.”
Those changes have been seen by students.
Senior Brenda Trejo signed a letter of intent to play soccer at Treasure Valley Community College on Monday and is entering college with 12 credits already on the books.
“There has been a major change at the high school,” she said. “The whole atmosphere is different than when I started.”
“The administration has changed a lot and it has been for the good,” said snior Leslie Serrano. “We get so much support for what we accomplish.”
For students, progress and good attendance may mean permission to go off campus for juniors and seniors during lunch.
“I have seen so many more opportunities for Latino students since I started here,” said Tyler Tamez, a senior. “In the past, there were a lot of stigmas and stereotypes we put up with. Now, everyone is appreciated for what they have to offer in the school.”
Tamez and others gathered to talk to the Malheur Enterprise and are members of a new club in the school, the Future Hispanic Leaders of America. The group is involved in school activities from sports to the newly formed Thespian group.
“Being a part of FHLA has shown us everyone is important here,” Tamez said.
That sentiment is echoed by senior Jaqueline Cuevas.
“It is just not sports only,” Cuevas said. “The whole school has really come together. The teachers and administration show they want us to succeed.”
Staff at the school has also seen the shift.
Carren Pofs chairs the English Department at the high school and leads senior projects.
“The changes have been a huge team effort,” she said. “We now have committed teachers here. The biggest thing I have seen is the students hold each other accountable. I hear all the time in the halls kids asking each other if assignments are completed or asking one another if they need help.”
Pofs said she received emails every day from students who are home sick, asking about assignments missed.
“This is a completely different school from when I started,” she said. “We are giving them the needed resources and they are seeing their potential.”
Nicole Adamson, a health and PE teacher, also credits the elementary and middle schools for the improvements.
“It has been a group effort,” she said. “The elementary and middle schools have been able to recognize kids on the bubble and be proactive. Programs like the allied health care have kept kids focused on the goals. We now have a connection with the students that goes beyond just the classroom.”
While the graduation rate in Ontario climbed, Vale and Nyssa high schools saw declines.
“The greatest challenge we faced with the 2016-2017 cohort is the number of students who moved in or out of the district during their high school career,” said Vale Superintendent Alisha McBride. “High student mobility makes it challenging for students to earn the credits they need to meet graduation requirements.”
McBride said the numbers show 77 percent of students who didn’t graduate attended Vale High School for two years or less.
“Our staff does a phenomenal job of preparing students to meet graduation requirements and has very high success when students attend Vale High School for three or four years,” she said. “As a district, we will be implementing protocols to closely monitor students who are mobile during their high school career.”
Nyssa Superintendent Jana Iverson said the district’s numbers remain above the state average and she is pleased with one number.
“Our graduation rate for students with disabilities rose,” she said.
Iverson said the district is monitoring the rates and making changes when needed.
Iverson said the right employees need to be in place to effect change.
“We have now settled in with a great group of teachers and administrators and I am confident our numbers will see a rise,” she said.
Have a news tip? Contact reporter John L. Braese at [email protected] or call 541-473-3377.