An Ontario High School classroom sits empty and ready for cleaning in 2020, as districts prepared for new strategies to educate students in the pandemic era. (Enterprise file photo)

For much of the last school year, high school seniors across Malheur County endured disruptions and isolation.

For part of the year, they had no class time. Instead, they took their lessons remotely.

They had no sports. They had no social gatherings.

They lived in pandemic restrictions at school when they did return.

Yet while the percentage of graduates dropped statewide, Malheur County school districts generally posted improved graduation rates or held even.

The Nyssa School District posted the strongest gain, graduating 88% of its seniors in the class of 2021 compared to 81% the year before.

The Ontario School District posted a graduation rate of 87% -– up from 85% the year before. The Vale School District held steady with a 97% graduation rate.

“Our staff has worked harder than ever before to achieve this graduation rate,” according to Alisha McBride, Vale school superintendent.

Interviews with superintendents and high school principals showed that a relentless focus on students even when they weren’t in the class was a key.

In Ontario, teachers and school administrators teamed up to visit students at home, making more than 1,000 such trips in the last school year.

In Nyssa, teachers were available three evenings a week to help students.

And in Vale, the school district provided 100 “hot spots” so students could keep up with class work.

The pandemic required adaptations by teachers and school officials, and a more determined effort to stay in touch with students outside of the school building was cited in interviews as a key.

“We’re going to make it hard to fail,” said Brett Jackman, Nyssa High School principal.

Jodi Elizondo, Ontario High School principal, said the focus on connecting with students, especially at their homes, was revealing.

“When you go to a home where the front door is held together by baling wire, you come back and appreciate that this student is holding it together as well as they are,” she said.

The Ontario district initiated a “Donuts and Doorbells” program to put teachers on the front porches of their students.

“We were endlessly on the road,” she said. “We have a level of communication that can’t be duplicated even now. Nobody had ever experienced that before.”

Nikki Albisu, Ontario school superintendent, said such visits were powerful.

“You take on a new understanding of why the student does the things they do,” she said. “You approach them differently. You form a different relationship.”

 They saw students balancing finishing high school, working to support their family, and serving caregivers for younger siblings.

Melissa Williams, Ontario district director of student services, said students were “so grateful and excited” for the visits.

Those home visits were only part of the strategy in the Ontario district to keep students moving towards graduation.

Albisu said one choice was to continue live teaching, even remotely, instead of relying on pre-packaged online educational programs. The district made sure every student had a Chrome notebook and wifi access, meaning some that “in some cases, a lot of students had more access than ever before” to school.

The district also beefed up its summer school to help students gain credits they were missing. School officials elected to pay students to attend, recognizing that many students otherwise would have to pass on summer school to hold down a summer job.

“That gave a way for students to earn money to support their families and accomplish what need to be done for school,” Williams said.

In Nyssa, school officials used the pandemic to innovate how they teach.

“It’s been a time of reflection on past practices,” said Jackman. “What worked in the past won’t work now. It’s been a time of adjusting what they teach and how they teach and still hold kids to the high rigor.”

He said teachers increased one-on-one time with students. And that was possible, he said, because “regardless of what mandates and guidelines were thrown at them,” teachers stepped up.

Nyssa Superintendent Darren Johnson said students who are falling behind can get extra help through the Opportunity to Improve program. (Enterprise file)

Darren Johnson, Nyssa school superintendent, said programs such as career education and music “keep students connected and help them find a reason to attend each day.”

He said teachers closely monitor students and act when one is failing.

“Students who are failing a class are required to attend OTI (Opportunity to Improve) with their teacher each day after school until they are passing their classes,” Johnson said in an email.

“We strive to help each of these at-risk students achieve by making sure they have a key adult connection, have a favorite class, are connected to a sport or club, and have positive peers,” Johnson said.

McBride said Vale teachers monitor students closely to catch any issues.

“They know our students so well. They ensure they don’t get lost,” McBride said.

“The path to graduation begins when a student enters kindergarten, and it takes a village to get a student to graduation,” McBride said.

Vale's Alisha McBride says teachers monitor students closely to catch any performance problems early. (Enterprise file)

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