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Stock Pix Graduation (copy)

West Albany High School seniors are pictured during their graduation ceremony in June 2018. 

The Oregon Department of Education last week released high school graduation rates for the class of 2018, and there was good news in the numbers: The on-time graduation rate for the state rose to nearly 79 percent.

The state's graduation rate has been moving upward over the last five years, and the same is true for most of the school districts in the mid-valley. 

But let's keep the champagne corks in their bottles for the time being: Frankly, a 79 percent graduation rate doesn't seem like something worth celebrating. It still means that better than 1 out of every 5 students does not graduate on time from an Oregon high school. And that 79 percent rate doesn't seem likely to help Oregon move up the charts in terms of its national standing: The state's 2017 graduation rate ranked 49th in the nation — an astonishing result for a state that typically talks a good game about educating its students but doesn't always follow through on that talk. 

We don't talk much these days about the state's aspirational 40-40-20 educational goal, so you can be excused if you need a primer. Here's the important thing to remember today: The goal called for every Oregon adult to have a high school diploma or its equivalent by the year 2025. (The other numbers in the 40-40-20 indicated the percentage of Oregonians who should hold postsecondary degrees by 2025.)

No one believes we'll be able to hit that 100 percent mark, that point at which every adult Oregonian holds that high school diploma. But we need to act as if we do, and that's because we understand that a high school diploma is the key to a better life. Without that diploma, people struggle. If you're stuck in a cycle of poverty, that diploma represents the first step toward breaking that cycle.

So we were interested to see numbers crunched by The Oregonian newspaper, which analyzed last week's graduation data, not just to find which schools in the state had the highest rates, but to take it a step further: The newspaper wanted to see which schools were most effective at graduating their low-income students. 

Of course, simply getting high school students to graduate in four years is a challenging proposition, even in school districts that enjoy the advantage of being in relatively prosperous communities.

But it adds an extra level of difficulty when you consider the challenges facing students from low-income households: These are students who simply don't have the advantages available to students from families with  more economic means.

One school in the mid-valley topped The Oregonian's list of schools that did the best job of working through those challenges: West Albany High School graduated an astonishing 97 percent of its low-income students. (West Albany's overall graduation rate for 2018 also was 97 percent, good enough for third place in the state.) 

Year in and year out, West Albany consistently leads the mid-valley in graduation rates. The school must be doing something right, and the secret to its success isn't really a secret: For years, under the leadership of Principal Susie Orsborn, the school has made it a priority to identify struggling students as early as possible and to get them the resources they need to get back on track.

Sounds simple. But in an era of tight school budgets, it's harder to pull off than you might think, and West Albany has been forced to make some hard decisions: For example, it allows larger advanced classes so that it can allocate additional resources to struggling students.  

Legislators and Gov. Kate Brown say they're intent on finding more money for the state's schools. And there's no doubt that more money could help — if it's spent the right way. West Albany appears to have found one right way. (mm)

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Managing Editor