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Oregon’s Students With Disabilities Significantly Less Likely To Graduate

Friday, June 05, 2015


Oregon’s Department of Education (ODE) has not fared well in news cycle this year, most notably due to the state’s fairly low graduation rates and levels of funding compared to other states. Now adding to the mix is new data showing that Oregon’s students with disabilities are graduating at significantly lowers rates than their peers. 

According to a study released Thursday by the the Education Week Research Center, “Next Steps: Life After Special Education,” only 37 percent of students with disabilities in Oregon graduated with a high school diploma in 2013. This is compared to 69 percent of students across the state - a 32 percent gap between the two groups. 

When compared to the rest of the nation, the situation of Oregon’s disabled students looks even worse. The national average of students with disabilities graduating in 2013 was 62 percent, only a 19 percent dip from the rate of non-disabled students. 

“One of the factors involved in that difference is that part of the eligibility criteria for special education is that the student’s disability is impacting their learning, so it’s impacting their ability to progress academically,” said Chrystal Watros, a Program Administrator for Portland Public Schools. “If they were progressing academically at grade level, then they wouldn’t necessarily be requiring special education. The nature of their disability is also a factor.”

Even after taking these hurdles into account, however, the graduation rates of Oregon’s students with disabilities are still dragging far behind the rest of the country. According to ODE officials, there’s more than one factor at play.

Rates Not As Bad As They Seem - But Still Lagging

Administrators are quick to cite how Oregon’s diploma system, which differs to that of many other states, has impacted the state’s graduation rates statistics.

“One of the factors that is different about Oregon than other states is that we have multiple options for students with disabilities which may not exist in other states,” Watros said. “We have the modified diploma option, extended diplomas, and alternative certificates. In the past, students who completed high school with one of those three options were not counted as high school graduates. That has had a significant impact on our graduation rates compared to other states.”

That issue was resolved this year after ODE reached out to the federal Department of Education to have those students who received some form of modified diploma recognized in the state’s graduation rate data.

This modification produced a significant bump in the state’s graduation rates. In 2014, 51 percent of Oregon’s students with disabilities graduated from high school, compared to 37 percent in 2013, before the changes were made. That leaves Oregon only 11 percent behind the rest of the nation – a vast improvement from the 25% difference the year before.. 

“That being said, we’re still in the low 50s, so there’s clearly a lot left to be done,” said Crystal Green, Communications Director for the state Department of Education.

New Practices In Place 

ODE has already implemented several new practices in state schools to help close the graduation gap between students with and without special education needs, including early childhood programs and early identification of special needs requirements. 

“In special education, our conversations are targeted towards what ‘what is their unique situation?’” What are their strengths and challenges? How do we best support them in reaching their full potential?” Greene said. “We really want to make sure that’s a conversation.”

ODE has also applied for technical assistance from the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT), an organization that trains school systems on how to better assist students with disabilities.

“[NTACT] will help us to evaluate our programs that we’re using at a high school level and be able to look at where there are predicators of success for students,” said Sally Simich, a secondary transition specialist for the state Department of Education.

These “predictors of success” include access for students with disabilities to the generalized curriculum, to opportunities for community experiences, and training in skills like self determination and self advocacy, Simich said.

Another major focus is the importance of 9th grade, which ODE says is a crucial factor in determining if a student, with or without disabilities, will complete high school. Administrators have been implementing strategies of tracking and assisting students who end their freshman year behind their peers. If they have not completed enough credits to remain “on track” to graduate, ODE programs intervene.

“School districts are designing different activities like coaching after school, aligning the student with a peer mentor, Saturday instruction – not as punitive, but as a support mechanism,” Simich said. “Some of the sports teams and clubs also incorporate a tutor.”

Oregon’s Rural Landscape Plays a Role

For towns throughout Oregon with only several hundred people or few schools, access to special education assistance can be limited. The state has 197 school districts, 80 percent or more of which are small and in rural areas, Simich said. Disadvantages to living in one of these areas can include less funding, fewer resources, and lower rates of high school completion and postsecondary education, according to Education Week.

Oregon has attempted to remedy this through its Education Service Districts (ESD), a group of 17 collectives throughout the state that helps school districts – especially ones in rural areas – have access to high cost special education resources.

“Each ESD works with their region of the state to help provide things where not many kids per district might need, like a sign language interpreter,” said Greene.

Moreover, ODE created a “transition technical assistance network” this year. The network has eight facilitators who help districts identify and connect school districts with the resources they need, Simich said.

Portland Becoming A Model Of Success

In 2011, Portland’s rate of graduation for students was disabilities was at a dismal 31 percent. In only five years, however, the city showed a dramatic 19 percent jump, reaching a 50 percent graduation rate in 2013. Students without disabilities saw only an 8 percent increase, rising from 62 to 70 percent between 2011 and 2013, according to city data.

The spike in the numbers can be attributed to the city’s transition to a “mainstreaming” model of special education, where students with disabilities spend most of their day in general classrooms and with special education support.

“General classrooms have access to the core curriculum, so when students have access to the core curriculum, we’re providing them with an opportunity to learn,” said Watros, who has been working for Portland Public Schools for two decades. “When we remove them from the classroom, we’re restricting their access to the curriculum and opportunity..” 

Access to the core curriculum is crucial for meeting graduation requirements, Watros said. 

“If they’re not in classes where they’re being exposed to the material, how do they have an opportunity to learn it?” she added. “They have to have access. It’s all about access and opportunities.” 

Portland Public Schools also launched a new focus program in high schools this year called the Communication Behavior Classrooms, which assists students with significant social, behavioral, and developmental needs.

According to the Portland Public School district’s website, the high school students in the program are integrated in general education classes, but with added intensive supports of a team that includes a special education teacher, a speech-language pathologist, and para-educators with expertise in the student’s specific needs. This is meant to provide “mainstreamed” special education students with a better chance of graduating within four years.

“My goal working with high school special education students is to close the gap between graduation rates for general education and grow another 20 percent in the next few years,” Watros, who works on the program, said. “That’s the next target. We’re above the state average but that’s not good enough.”


Related Slideshow: 9 Challenges Facing Portland Public Schools

Aiming to lower expulsion rates, especially for students of color, and raising high school graduation rates are among Portland Public Schools’ top priorities. See what other challenges the schools are facing here. 

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Raising Graduation Rates 

In 2012-2013, about 75 percent of students graduated with their cohort, while another 7 percent of their cohort completed some form of high school requirements during a fifth year, finishing in 2013-2014.

Sascha Perrins, senior director of PK-12 Programs, said Portland Public School District has raised rates by doing more career technical education alongside regular curriculum, giving students deeper offerings all the way back to middle school, as well as by identifying students sooner who have fallen behind. 

Graduation rates got a little boost from another data change in 2013-2014 that could be a little deceiving. In 2013-2014, the state began counting students who received a modified diploma in the four-year cohort rate, reasoning that a modified diploma is enough to qualify for college financial aid. 

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Reducing Expulsions 

The district also has a strategy to address an issue that goes hand in hand with graduation rates: exclusionary discipline of students. “We’re seeing a really high link with kids who are excluded (via expulsion) and kids who don’t graduate on time,” said Perrins. “I’m not saying if you miss… suddenly you can’t graduate, but it’s more symptomatic of your experience in school.”

Additionally, students of color are far more likely to experience expulsion than white students—a national trend that doesn’t miss Portland. In 2013-2014, 10.5 percent of African American students were expelled at least once, while 7.4 percent of Native Americans, 4.4 percent of Pacific Islanders, 3.9 percent of Hispanics, 3.8 of percent mixed race, 2.3 percent of whites and 1 percent of Asians were expelled. 

In the last few years, the number of students being expelled has decreasd, but the rate of expulsion for African American students has not changed much. In 2013-2014, they were about 4.6 times as likely to be expelled than a white student.

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Improving Leadership

Portland Association of Teachers President Gwen Sullivan said that the district has huge leadership issues starting with principals but also at the central office. 

“People are just being mean. In some cases it feels like they are being encouraged to be,” said Sullivan. “I don’t know when (the district) will actually fire a principal. They tend to go on leave and disappear.”

Recently, the district has had a number of principals abruptly go on leave—one after being accused and arrested for domestic abuse and the other after teachers complained about the hostile environment, reported Willamette Week. 

Sullivan said that the central office must have good leadership, too, in order to address these issues. 

“We know that in a school where you have a supportive principal, the teacher feels supported, the parents feel supported, the kids feel supportive and the environment is good to teach in,” Sullivan said.

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Improving Parent and Community Engagement 

“(Parent involvement) is one of the things that everyone talks about and everyone tries to figure out how to approach,” said Otto Schell, long time parent advocate and PTA volunteer. “Some communities have done really well at engaging parents at the school level and others not so much.” 

“The PTA model works very effectively in some schools and in other schools we don’t reach all the parents,” said Schell, who is currently a Grant PTA member and the legislative director for the Oregon PTA.

Schell gave the example of watching the Caeser Chavez community come out and presented during the budget meeting at Roosevelt High School, which included a Spanish translation services. “It’s a great example of how you can do it if both the school staff and parent community coalesce and work together,” he said.

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Redrawing Boundaries

Due to anticipated growing enrollment, PPS began a boundary review process this year that would address balancing the district population in the available space in school buildings. 

Some sticky areas include achieving diversity of racial and ethnic groups and addressing space needs in some schools. 

Additionally, the district has a mix of K-5 and K-8 schools, about which parents have had mixed opinions. Some feel that middle school students get stronger offerings in a 6-8 school as classes like band or choir are difficult to offer middle school students in a K-5 school lacking a larger population.  

“Middle schools should have shop, art, band… a variety of different things,” said Sullivan. 

A district-wide committee is rethinking boundary changes for the fall 2016 school year.  

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Completing Building Upgrades and Rebuilds Using 2012 Bond Money 

Hand-in-hand with rebalancing school populations, the district is planning and currently undergoing building changes for Portland’s growing student body. While some plans are already underway, the district will still consider whether building spaces already in the works will be enough to house enrollment projections 15 years from now.

“We’d hate to overbuild or underbuild,” said Miles. 

The district has released its list of 27 summer projects in elementary schools, which includes seismic upgrades as well as science classrooms and ADA (American with Disabilities Act) work. It is also beginning work at Franklin High School with a groundbreaking at noon on Saturday, May 16, and at Roosevelt High School. Work at Faubion PK-8, which will create a shared space with Concordia University, begins in the fall. Planning for modernization at Grant High School is currently underway with construction planned for 2017. 

There are a few more years of the bond after that during which the district could consider how to adapt other smaller buildings. 

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Ensuring Third Graders Can Read to Learn 

Before third grade, teaching is more directed at helping teach students how to read, but in third grade, the curriculum shifts to reading in order to learn more. “You have to read to access more information,” said Perrins. “We want every child to access all that learning to come up after third grade.” 

Reading to learn by third grade is a priority of the Oregon Department of Education, which administers state testing in third grade. But that will only tell you what a student has learned in the past, said Perrins, which is why the district administers smaller “formative assessments” to understand what struggling students are learning. These could be done every two to three weeks. 

To support reading in elementary schools, the district hires instructional specialists especially at schools with higher poverty, divides students into smaller groups, provide mentorship for younger teachers and professional development options to strengthen teaching.

Sullivan added that in the case of reading the district is doing a good job by adding 25 more librarians next year. 

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Improving funding

The district isn’t the only player to consider in the game of funding schools. But certainly many challenges would be easier to face with more funding. 

This year, the Oregon Legislature increased funding from the last biennium to $7.255 billion spread across the state. However, most local school districts had supported a $7.5 billion budget for K-12. The reduced number isn’t really anything new for public schools, which have for years been asking for more than the legislature gives it.

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Providing More Wrap Around Services 

Sullivan said teachers could benefit from better connections with other services available to their students from impoverished families. They need things like counselors, mental health providers and food assistance—some of which can come from other sources like the county.

But, sometimes the extra support could come from special education services, which requires the district to be supportive of teachers making referrals.


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