Solutions for Oregon’s low graduation rate?


Solutions for Oregon’s low graduation rate?

8:27 a.m. PDT July 28, 2016

In December, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced the creation of a new position, the Education Innovation Officer.

Meant to advise Brown on the best practices and programs for schools statewide, the job leaves much to the imagination.

What does it mean to “engage with communities”? How will the results of such engagements help? What are the main goals of the position? And why was this position created when the state already has a Chief Education Officer and Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction?

To get to the root of these questions, the Statesman Journal spoke with Kristin Gimbel, public affairs director for the Chief Education Office; and Colt Gill, the state’s first Education Innovation Officer.

What is an Education Innovation Officer?

The Education Innovation Officer has one main goal — improve the state’s graduation rate — which, to be accomplished, comes with many other goals.

Oregon has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, with only 74 percent of students graduating from high school on time. In the graduating class of 2015, about 11,800 kids did not graduate, Gill said.

The Legislature has approved a statewide goal of a 100 percent graduation rate by 2025. However, if the state were to “go about business as usual,” Gill predicted,150,000 children would be at risk of not graduating on time.

“We are in near-crisis mode,” he said.

It isn’t just a matter of graduating. The state also wants to know students are graduating prepared for their next steps in the workplace or college, which takes additional work.

While the Education Innovation Officer works closely with the Chief of Education and the Deputy Superintendent, his main job is focused on working to improve graduation rates and outcomes.

He is responsible for working with local communities, school districts, researchers, students and other stakeholders to identify existing successful practices, unravel challenges districts are facing, and delve into data and research on the subject — from Oregon and other states.

After gathering feedback and data, the officer will make recommendations to the governor, state agencies, and the Legislature regarding policies, budget priorities and supports needed.

Meet Colt Gill

Gill was appointed by Brown as Oregon’s first Education Innovation Officer in April. He was the longtime superintendent of the Bethel School District, which serves about 5,700 students in northwest Eugene.

He has been an Oregon educator for more than 25 years, serving as an adjunct professor at the University of Oregon and on a number of boards and commissions for the state and for various education and children’s health and wellness institutions.

As a native Oregonian, he said, and with a deep-rooted past in the state’s education system, this issue hits home with him.

Meeting with the community

Gill has been in the position for only a matter of weeks, so he said a routine hasn’t quite been established.

“Every day is a little different,” he said.

So far, Gill has been working with Gimbel to set up his community engagement events. Through the end of the summer, Gill will visit 18 counties to meet with focus groups. By talking with parents, students, educators and administrators, he said, he will get a better idea of what is working and what isn’t.

Gimbel said Gill’s meetings in Marion and Polk counties will come later in the season. When those dates, times and locations are set, the information will be released to the public so they know where and how to participate in the conversation.

Neighbor counties are welcome to join at these events as well as the state wants to get as broad coverage as possible, he said.

Initial findings

In addition to engaging with the community through these focus groups, Gill helped develop an inter-agency team — including the Department of Education and Chief of Education Office — that is charged with collecting and analyzing existing data to find themes of best practices.

While still in his position’s infancy, Gill said he is already learning a lot.

For instance, while Oregon students perform at or above average on national tests, that isn’t translating to an average or slightly above average graduation rate, as it tends to correlate in other states.

Oregon also has higher rates of absenteeism. Gill said this leads to the question, “How do we look at absenteeism differently than we have?”

Research shows the importance of student engagement, he said, meaning each student needs to feel engaged with the material. It needs to be relevant to students to be worth their coming back.

While saying “You need to graduate” may work for some, it won’t work for everyone, he said.

There are “great data on career technical education outcomes,” Gill said. “Even after one career technical education course, the student is 15.5 percent more likely to graduate.”

Gill said this translates across all demographics, whereas absenteeism and lower graduation rates disproportionately affect males and low-income students, as well as students of color.

Some districts in the country have adopted “early indicator and innovation systems” that detect issues in a child’s progress early on by tracking attendance, student behavior and grades, among other factors.

Chicago Public Schools has a similar structure to Oregon and have seen a great response to the indicator and innovations systems, Gill said, including a 4 percent increase in graduation rates every year for the past four years.

This is one of many models Gill and his team are analyzing and taking into consideration.


Gill said he will have short- and long-term goals based on his findings, all working toward the state’s 2025 goal.

Until then, he said, he is looking for steady progress.

“There is no instant fix,” he said. Gill wants to make sure the changes they make can be sustained over time as well.

“A big nut to crack is recognizing the implementation (of Gill’s suggestions) will have to look different for each community across the state,” Gimbel said. Gill is “being incredibly thoughtful … knowing not just one size fits all.”

Gill said it is important to “recognize the current system of education (in Oregon) is not working for all our students.”

With the policies, budget priorities and more that he and his team suggests, maybe one day it will.

For more information, go to or call 503-373-1283.

Contact Natalie Pate at, 503-399-6745 or follow on Twitter @Nataliempate or

Published by Natalie Pate

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She wrote about education for more than seven years at the Statesman Journal and now covers education and other topics throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is originally from Colorado and earned her B.A. in Politics and French from Willamette University.

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