In the spring of her junior year, Vania Torres’ home life went to pieces.
A close relative who lived with Torres and her parents in Milwaukie went through an ugly divorce and custody battle. Arguments raged. Then for agonizing weeks, it appeared the baby from that marriage would be gone forever from the family’s life. The importance of high school classes receded and her grades tanked. “The mood in the house was really sad,” Torres recalls.
Adults at Putnam High, particularly her Spanish teacher, noticed and gently offered support, she says. Still, she failed the second semester of algebra.
Across Oregon each year, thousands of teens get derailed while on their path to a diploma. No matter the cause, each student who drops out represents a traumatic blow to that young person’s life opportunities — and one more tiny knock to the state’s economy. As recently as 2014, one in three Latino students in Oregon left school without a diploma. But the state’s high schools have managed to begin a promising collective turnaround.
In the final semester of Torres’ senior year, her principal summoned her to the office. Both assistant principals and three counselors were there too. Their message? She was at high risk of failing to graduate. If she didn’t pass algebra, there would be no diploma. She’d have to pull her grade up from a measly 4 percent to the minimum passing grade of 60.
But here was the takeaway: They believed in her. They knew she could do it. And Kathleen Walsh, principal of the whole school, was going to help her, starting with coming to math class with her a few times.
Instead of cut down or afraid of failure, Torres felt buoyed. “I knew that they wanted me to graduate and I had their support,” she says. “It felt amazing.”
Oregon has a serious graduation problem. As recently as 2014, just 72 percent of high school students earned a diploma in four years — one of the very worst rates in the nation. And among Latinos, the fastest growing group of students in the state, it was even worse.
And no school seemed to have the solution: Among schools with at least 50 Latino students, only a handful got 80 percent or more to earn diplomas in four years and none reached the 90 percent benchmark.
In the three years since, however, the state’s schools have managed a slow, steady march to better results. That culminated with the class of 2017, whose overall graduation rate showed the biggest one-year increase in recent state history — 2 percentage points to 77 percent, officials announced Thursday. And schools accomplished greater gains with Latino students. The 3 percentage point gain by the Latino class of 2017 capped an eight-point improvement over the past three graduating classes.
At the peak of the pack? Putnam High. Ninety-three percent of its Latino students walked across the stage last June to accept diplomas from Walsh, their very proud principal.
How did the North Clackamas school, where one in five students is Latino and more than half of all students are low-income, make that happen?
The playbook included a conglomeration of systems, programs
At the heart of Putnam’s graduation success story, however, is an entire staff that loves kids and will go the extra mile for them.
The Spanish-speaking campus security guard whose main goal each day is getting kids to go to class on time. The gay white female teacher who connects with boys of color like few others. The assistant principal who shamelessly uses boys’ soft spot for making their moms happy as a lure to get reluctant seniors across the line to a diploma.
The school recruits and hires for employees like those, who bring big skills and bigger hearts to a job in which you’re only effective if students sense you genuinely care about them, says assistant principal Ryan Richardson. “It all goes back to relationships. If you have a relationship with a kid, they will work harder for you.”
Throughout high school, Farit Farias was dominant in front of his team’s soccer net, stopping opponents’ balls with what coaches and opponents called incredible saves. But after freshman year at Putnam High, he didn’t show the same confidence and determination in school. He never skipped class, but he just wasn’t that into academics. He wanted to be seen as a cool kid, he recalls. A lot of the time, “soccer is honestly all I would think about.”
Senior year, Farias was going to need to step up his confidence as a student and his work ethic in class or the diploma would elude him.
Cue Team Putnam, beginning with Caroline Spear, Farias’ creating writing teacher.
A Mexican-born immigrant who didn’t learn English until he started kindergarten in the North Clackamas school district, Farias had always liked to write. Just putting pencil to paper felt right. He thought he was good, but nothing special.
Spear showed him otherwise. He remembers the first major essay he wrote for her. A photograph showed a bunch of young Latino men gathered around a muscle car at a park. Their outfits and hair styles told Farias it was the 1980s. He thought about what he’d learned in history about discrimination and racism toward Latinos and immigrants decades before he was born.
Was it OK, he asked Spear, if he mixed in some Spanish words with his English? And judiciously added some explicit language, to make the writing “juicy?” Yes, she told him. He channeled the young men in his imagination as he wrote. He thought his piece was pretty good. Spear told him it was much better than that, enthusiastically praising specific aspects of his work. “She told me I have a gift,” he recalls. “It motivated me so much and made me realize I really did like writing. She made me realize I was good at a school subject, more than good.”
One day a note summoned Farias from class. He was to report, it said, to Richardson, the assistant principal, at a room he knew only as the place where lunchtime detention was held. Uh-oh, he thought.
But behind the door was all good — and not just because pizza was served. Richardson had assembled a diverse group of Latino and Latina students he noticed were influential in various circles at Putnam. He wanted to hear from them during occasional convenings: What was their experience at the school? What could be done differently to better serve students like them?
Farias hadn’t known most of the students well, but being in the group with them felt really good, he said. “I felt more included, more welcome at Putnam.”
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