About half of Salem-Keizer’s special needs students are not graduating on time.
The district’s nearly 6,750 students with Individualized Education Programs — a designation to access special services — have a four-year graduation rate of 49.9 percent. The state target is 78 percent.
Other Oregon school districts perform much better.
For example, West Linn-Wilsonville and Woodburn school districts are only 10 percentage points below the goal, while Silver Falls schools are about three points above.
Beaverton and Portland districts are about 20 percentage points under the target, but still above Salem-Keizer Public School’s graduation results.
Salem-Keizer’s special education students also are dropping out at higher rates, with only a fraction going on to enroll in additional education or secure any kind of employment.
Despite low graduation rates for special ed students, Salem-Keizer officials say there has been substantial progress to achieve their latest results.
The district achieved a seven percentage point increase to reach its four-year graduation rate. As a result, the five-year rate decreased. And the district has upped the amount of time these students join their peers in regular classes.
But for every year Salem-Keizer’s numbers remain low, special ed students, their families and their communities pay, both financially and personally.
Student forced to find a different path
CJ Larsen, 18, was told countless times throughout middle and high school that he would never be able to graduate.
The Salem student grew up with severe Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and dyslexia.
By the time he was entering his junior year, he only had six credits accumulated for a diploma. Students need 24 credits to graduate.
“They kept telling me to stop getting his hopes up,” said Tina Larsen, CJ’s mother.
Focusing in class was a challenge as Larsen fidgeted and wanted to learn by working with his hands.
He understood the material well and always did his homework, but his grades remained low. He wasn’t turning in the completed assignments because, in his mind, they weren’t good enough.
“I don’t use my disabilities as a crutch,” he said. “They, in a lot of aspects, are … blessings in disguise.
“Like, I may not be able to read faster than other people, but my brain works really well with numbers and calculating.”
Larsen and his mom figured out how to learn his way. When tackling reading, for example, that meant looking at books upside down and in a mirror.
But he wasn’t getting that kind of help at school. So Larsen decided he had to either drop out or transfer to Roberts High School’s Downtown Learning Center, an alternative program in the district.
Students who don’t earn a diploma are at greater risk of relying on social services, according to the Foundation of Educational Choice, also known as EdChoice.
This costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars more every year in Medicaid, lost tax revenue and incarceration costs.
Larsen was able to eventually transfer to the center, where he was given individualized support and allowed to learn by using his body — whether that was tapping his foot, clicking his pen or engaging in hands-on learning.
“They helped me grow in a way a normal school wouldn’t,” he said. “They made me want to go back to school, want to learn again.”
Larsen eventually took the General Educational Development diploma test. He didn’t want to take the modified version or request additional time. And he didn’t have to.
He passed easily and soon was planning out his schedule for when he attends the Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland.
“After so many years of your teachers telling you that you’d never amount to anything … and you finally succeed at something… it’s hard and it’s emotional … and it feels good,” he said.
Barriers in class
Historically, students with disabilities have had the lowest graduation rate, said Eric Richards, director of Salem-Keizer’s Student Services.
And each student receiving special education services has their own issues.
Some may face a variety of traumatic experiences that impact their ability to learn, he explained. Others may experience physical or mental health challenges that interfere with attendance.
And some may not have a parent or family member who is actively engaged in their education, Richards said, and research shows that “parental participation enhances educational outcomes.”
“These are … a few of the many unique, individual challenges a student with disabilities might experience,” he said.
One of the largest challenges these students face, he said, is being underestimated and not challenged enough.
That was definitely the case with Larsen, who spent much of his time at Sprague High School coloring rather than learning math he needed to graduate.
“With each year, educators … are learning more and more about how to help students with disabilities graduate prepared for a successful adult life,” Richards said.
He said evidence shows holding high expectations for these students, and increasing the opportunities they have to take more general education classes with their peers, leads to higher graduation rates.
Other factors that help get these students graduate, he explained, include accurate and timely services, an “appropriate level of state and federal funding,” training and professional development for staff and long-term, transitional planning with parents.
“If one or more of these factors is not going well,” he said, “it can create a barrier to graduation.”
Salem-Keizer vs. other districts
When the Oregon Department of Education released the latest reports in April, Salem-Keizer officials were quick to defend their results.
“Our performance outlined in this particular report card is a story of success and improvement,” Richards said in a press release. “However, the report also reveals the need for continued improvement in other areas.”
When asked about the low graduation rates, Richards and other officials pointed out the number of students receiving special education services who graduated with a regular diploma in their four-year cohort was actually an increase of seven percentage points from the previous year.
And when asked why the post-secondary outcomes are so low, they said it was a coding issue.
“When reviewing the previous year’s report, (Salem-Keizer) was performing at or near the target levels for all post-secondary measures,” Richards said. “The dramatic change in one year was evidence that the 2015-16 data is a true outlier.”
The report states only 5.1 percent of Salem-Keizer students using district special needs services were enrolled in higher education after leaving the district in the last year. The state target is 30 percent.
The report states only 26.5 percent of these students were enrolled in higher education or employed. The state target is 55.5 percent.
And the report states 37.8 percent of Salem-Keizer students were either enrolled in high education or training program, competitively employed or are in some other employment. The state target is 72 percent.
During the 2015-16 year, the district made a change from one technology system to another, resulting in inaccurate data being reported under post-secondary outcomes, officials said.
District officials asked the department to allow them to correct the error, but were denied.
But when asked what the correct numbers would be, Richards and other officials said there would be no way of knowing — they would have to call all the parents from the survey.
“The targets are set very high,” Richards told the Statesman Journal. “They (state officials) expect excellence.”
Several other districts are reaching, if not surpassing, many of the objectives.
West Linn-Wilsonville School District, for example, is just shy of the four-year graduation rate target of 78 percent, coming in at 76.6 percent.
Andrew Kilstrom, a spokesman for West Linn-Wilsonville, said this success can be attributed to a handful of tactics.
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For example, the district makes sure schools throughout the district are equipped with the services they need to teach and support these students.
Additionally, he said, they ensure as many students with individualized education programs as possible are in the classroom with their general education peers. This is seen by the 85.7 percent of students included in regular class 80 percent or more of the day.
Woodburn School District also is surpassing almost all of the post-secondary goals and is above the state target for the five-year graduation rate.
Silver Falls School District, based in Silverton, is surpassing even the four-year graduation rate with 81.4 percent of its special needs students graduating on time, compared to the 78 percent state target.
Richards said Salem-Keizer is working to make graduation and post-secondary options more obtainable to these students through a “whole host of strategies,” such as changing their curriculum, scheduling dedicated intervention time and filing more frequent progress reports to help identify trouble areas.
But Richards says this work takes time and will reflect in data down the road.
“People know we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.
To see the state special education reports by district, go to https://www.ode.state.or.us/data/ReportCard/sped/.