A sign expresses Vale Viking pride. (The Enterprise/File)

VALE – State officials reported last week that Vale High School posted a big jump in the percentage of seniors graduating despite the onset of the pandemic.

Figures released by the Oregon Department of Education showed a 9% gain in the graduation rate to 97% for the 2020 class in Vale.

The state report showed that Nyssa’s graduation rate improved by 2% and Ontario’s held steady. Adrian reported a gain of almost 2%, Harper a drop of 8% (with 11 out of 12 students graduating), and Jordan Valley held steady at 100%. 

Statewide, Oregon schools posted the highest proportion of students graduating high school in at least the last eight years as graduation rates climbed from 80% for the class of 2019 to 83% for the class of 2020. 

This significant jump, however, may reflect changes in grading standards during the pandemic, education officials said. Students who were on track to graduate in March 2020 when the school closure order was issued were allowed to do so regardless of whether they continued to participate in class and complete assignments for the rest of the year. 

Most of Malheur County’s schools came in with graduation rates well above the state average of 83%. Nyssa High School, which graduated only 81% of its seniors, was the one exception.

Alisha McBride, Vale School District superintendent, said that the district’s graduation rate, which exceeded 90% last year in every demographic category analyzed, was not determined by the pandemic. 

““The high graduation rate highlights the hard work that staff and students put forth to overcome the challenges of distance learning during a pandemic,” she said, “Vale High School staff should especially be commended for their efforts last spring to provide high school seniors with the opportunity to earn credits toward graduation, despite schools being closed in March.”

Those efforts included three options – an online Edgenuity course, the chance to work with specific teachers, or the opportunity to create a portfolio demonstrating mastery – for students to meet graduation requirements.

The high school reported that 64 out of 66 eligible students graduated in 2020. 

Ontario High School principal Jodi Elizondo had similar praise for her team. Ontario posted an 89% graduation rate with 132 out of 148 eligible seniors graduating. 

“Our graduation rate is just a steady representation of what we’ve been able to accomplish at the high school,” she said. “We have a staff that is very invested in these kids. That’s never been more highlighted than it’s been this year.”

Looking at graduation rates in the county over a longer period of time shows that gains have been made in general over the past decade, as well as in specific demographic categories like Hispanic and Latino students and students with disabilities. 

In that sense, 2020 does not appear to be an outlier, though students with disabilities did experience a sharp gain in graduation rates in Ontario – from 80% to 86%. 

“The district makes sure to really use its resources in the best way possible and the most innovative way possible,” said Elizondo. “I’ve really seen a push for bringing people in who’ve done it successfully elsewhere to come in and do it here,” she said, citing programs that allow teachers to receive coaching from their peers elsewhere in the state.

“I would anticipate that if we ever go back to anything that looks like normal, that some of those districts where you see the spike will probably come back down to earth with those numbers,” since their graduation rates were inflated due to the pandemic, said Ken Martinez, instructional coach at Ontario High School. “Whereas I feel that we’ll probably continue where we’re at.”

Mary Jo Sharp, principal at Vale High School, said that she did not anticipate Vale’s graduation rates dropping significantly this year, even with the learning loss caused by the pandemic and the return of letter grades.

“At this time we have 92% of our high school seniors on track to graduate in May of 2021,” she said. “If, for some reason, a student cannot accomplish the task of getting caught up, I will continue to work with them over the summer to ensure they can at least earn a high school diploma. They may not qualify to participate in the graduation ceremony but we don't lose sight of the ultimate goal of earning the diploma!”

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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