Diploma Dilemma: 'How do we engage kids, particularly at an early age?'

EUGENE, Ore. - The state of Oregon is ranked as one of the worst in the country when it comes to its high school graduation rate. Oregon lawmakers are now urging congress to help increase rates by providing funding for schools.

"When you're looking at graduation, graduation is not just a high school marker. It's something that represents the work we've done K-12," said Kevin Ricker from Springfield schools. He echoed a common message heard from districts on the graduation rate.

The challenge facing everyone from administrators to teachers is keeping kids motivated with a diploma as the goal.

"Kids feel pushed out of education systems. So how do we engage kids, particularly at an early age? How do we work with kids in the kindergarten, first, second, third grade level to make sure they're up to speed in reading and math?" said Dr. Gustavo Balderas, Eugene 4J School District superintendent.

Lafayette Elementary School in Albany takes a unique approach to the problem by aiming beyond high school. The "No Excuses University Program" gets students excited about the prospects of college.

"So we have to be that person that gives them that information and lets them know that they can go to college, that it is attainable. And here's how you get there, not just a pie in the sky. But here's the path, we're going to help you get there. We're going to give you those skills," said Gina Ayers, Lafayette Elementary School principal.

It starts in kindergarten, with the kids getting their photos taken in a cap and gown. As the children get older, the program provides students an environment that explores real possibilities and real careers.

"We talk to our kids about having these skills. You need to be a good reader, a good writer, and you need to be a mathematician. Those are the strong things you need to have and if you get those foundations strong now, you can do anything you want. So that's what we're focusing on, making you have a strong foundation," Ayers said.

Springfield schools also use college as a motivator, taking full advantage or the resources available in their own backyard.

"We send all of our middle school students to University of Oregon to give them a chance to be on a campus. And when students, statistics will tell you, that if a student goes to a campus or is on a campus or actually takes a course that earns college credit, that they are much more likely to attend college in the future," said Kevin Ricker, director of secondary education.

While not every kid will attend college, a high school diploma is still relevant to a child's future.

Data is becoming increasingly important in tracking students to make sure they don't fall through the cracks, especially at-risk students.

Superintendent Balderas has what he terms a "web of intervention" to help raise any red flags. He emphasized using the data effectively and applying it to classrooms and programs.

"It is extensions for kids after hours, connections with parents, really really early in the process. Summer programs, strong transition program between elementary, middle, and high school. Those are all effective programs. So to make sure we have those programs in place and the district supports those programs," he said.

That data may be used by a district to assist a student making the transition to the next level.

West Albany High School looks at students that may be struggling in middle school with attendance, support systems, and academics.

"We do a summer school for eighth graders before they get to high school, and with six of our very best teachers. They spend two weeks here and it's really just about getting to know the school and knowing that you're going to be successful and we're going to be doing everything we can to help you be successful," said Susie Orsborn, principal of West Albany High School.

Part 2 of Diploma Dilemma will air Tuesday, November 17, at 6:30 and 11 #LiveonKMTR.

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