7:32 p.m. PT June 9, 2017
Less than a decade ago, only 56 percent of students at Woodburn’s Wellness, Business and Sports School graduated in four years.
This year, more than 90 percent earn their diplomas.
The Wellness, Business and Sports School is one of four traditional high school programs in the Woodburn School District, all of which have seen dramatic increases in graduation rates.
Because of these increases, more than 80 students graduated from these schools this year who wouldn’t have four or five years ago.
The boost in the graduation rate at Wellness, Business and Sports School (WeBSS) means it’s now higher than both the state average of 74.8 percent and the national average of 83.2 percent.
Woodburn’s other high school programs have seen a rise as well. For example, the Arts and Communications Academy which went from 64.8 percent in 2011-2012 to 91.7 percent in 2014-2015.
Staff and students attribute the success to various factors, including the district’s unique structure, a culture of support and collaboration created by teachers and students, and a commitment to college and career counseling.
A unique set up
In the early 2000s, the Woodburn School District began looking at high school reform models.
Laurie Cooper, director of teaching and proficiency learning, said they focused on the “small schools” model.
“We had a problem and this was the right solution,” Cooper said.
Leading into the conversion, Woodburn High school had about 1,400 students, Cooper said. Research in books such as “Rethinking High School” and by educators like Deborah Meier suggested schools needed to have 400 students each or fewer for maximum results.
To include all current students and accommodate anticipated growth, the district converted the high school into four programs.
The district received a $1.2 million Oregon Small Schools Initiative grant, funded by The Meyer Memorial Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to transform the high school.
A committee of staff, students, and parents decided on the focus of each school based on what core subjects needed to be included, which electives and advanced placement and career technical courses should be incorporated, and what would have the highest interest among students.
Cooper said class size hasn’t really changed; rather, there is fewer staff per school, which makes it easier for staff to collaborate and design curriculum together.
The district’s high school campus was converted by the 2006-07 school year.
The programs share one campus, one mascot, one cafeteria, and one sports team, but because of the structure of the academic offerings, each reports separately to the Oregon Department of Education.
Superintendent Chuck Ransom said this gives the programs a level of autonomy, but still a sense of community through the shared aspects.
“(We) attribute a lot of success to that model,” he said, adding the progress came from more than a decade of work. “If you stick with it, you do see results.”
Some small school initiatives have not had the same amount of success, but Cooper said Woodburn kept its model because it works for them and addressed the issues they’d been grappling with for years.
Deeper relationships between students and staff are perhaps the most important aspect of the small school model, according to Cooper.
“You have to have a relationship … to push them, to get them to work hard,” she said. “The benefit of knowing what your students need, their home situation, allows you to find ways to work hard, to challenge them and ask the right questions to get them to engage, to know what gets in (their) way of learning.”
Cooper said the trust built in these relationships allows the students to learn with more rigor.
While the students were always competitive with one another, Michelle Torres, a recent graduate, said they supported each other along the way and teachers always went the extra mile to help students.
“They were always there for you,” she said. “(It) made it hard to say goodbye.”
Sam Miller had a similar experience.
“All the teachers … were helpful,” he said. “They encouraged us to come in before and after school, they accommodated schedules … they do everything to help get you there.”
Dusty Price, a teacher and coach at the school, said the small school model has allowed these relationships to flourish.
“When you have a large, comprehensive school, it’s easier for students to fall through the cracks,” he said. “(Here), you have different interactions and (it allows) students to open up in a way they couldn’t in a (traditional) classroom.”
Price gave a lot of credit to the students as well, saying the success of older peers has inspired younger students to reach their goals.
“These are exceptional kids,” he said.
Ransom said the district works to provide students with what they need to focus on academics, and the deeper relationships help.
With more than 95 percent of students in the district considered to be economically disadvantaged, and between 64 and 77 percent of students, depending on grade, are identified as English Language Learners, he said the district has made an effort to fill any gaps.
The district has also implemented an advisory program in the high schools where one teacher works with a cohort of 15 students throughout their high school career.
Ransom said this and other supports, like an expanded counseling program, have contributed to the graduation rate increase.
Support from counselors
Before Mario Garza took on the role of college and career counselor for the high schoolers four years ago, there wasn’t a consistent effort by the district to address those needs.
There was some licensed staff before him, he said, but sometimes there wasn’t anyone in the position.
“Then the district made a … commitment to hire a qualified counselor to focus on this specifically,” he said. “It was a great first step.”
Garza said he has tried to get away from asking students where they are going to college or what they are going to study.
Instead, he approaches students by asking what their interests are and what they envision when they think of life after graduation.
“College is very valuable … but I understand it isn’t for everyone,” he said. “It’s best to keep your options open and don’t close any doors.”
By the numbers
Woodburn, WeBSS four-year graduation rate
- 2011-12: 56.3 percent
- 2012-13: 84.2 percent
- 2013-2014: 98.4 percent*
- 2014-15: 98.7 percent
- 2015-16: 91.7 percent
Oregon, four-year graduation rate
- 2011-12: 68.4 percent
- 2012-13: 68.7 percent
- 2013-14: 71.98 percent*
- 2014-15: 73.82 percent
- 2015-16: 74.8 percent
*Beginning with the 2013-2014 graduating class, students who met all requirements for an Oregon diploma or modified diploma were counted as graduates with the four-year graduates, even if the diploma was not awarded to allow the student to stay a fifth year, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
National, four-year graduation rates
- 2011-2012: 80 percent
- 2012-13: 81.4 percent
- 2013-14: 82.3 percent
- 2014-15: 83.2 percent
- 2015-16: 83.2 percent