Jackson County homeless students dropped out at a lower rate last year than elsewhere in Oregon, and those who started high school here four years ago also graduated more frequently.
Data released by the state last week on graduation rates for the 2016-17 school year included "homeless students" as a designated category for the first time. Dropout numbers have noted homeless students for three years.
Jackson County had one of the largest counts in Oregon of students who meet the federal definition of homeless: 308 experienced homelessness at some point during their four years in high school.
Of those students, 55.5 percent — or 171 students — received a diploma or modified diploma last year. That's almost 5 percentage points higher than the overall state rate of 50.6 percent.
The trend reverses among the five-year cohort, however: Jackson County's rate dipped to 55.1 percent, while the state's rose to 56.1 percent.
Jackson County's four-year graduation rate for homeless students placed 16th among counties in Oregon. Less-populated counties, where smaller numbers of students translate to bigger impacts, bookend the range of graduation rates, with 100 percent in Grant and Sherman counties and zero percent in Gilliam and Hood River counties.
The numbers are broken down to the county level, rather than by district, because some districts would have too few students to maintain adequate privacy, said Dona Bolt, state coordinator for the federal McKinney-Vento grant program, which allocates money for programs aimed at students experiencing homelessness.
The McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness includes students sleeping in a motel or car, those who are living with multiple households in a single residence, or even those in substandard living conditions. When students qualify, they become eligible for McKinney-Vento aid for the rest of that school year.
The graduation rate among the county's homeless students was 21.5 percentage points below the general countywide graduation rate of 77 percent. Across Oregon, the disparity between the homeless student graduation rate and the general four-year rate was 26 percent.
Although school districts are typically judged only by their four-year graduation rate, district and state officials agree that it's important to consider a five-year rate as well for students who have dealt with circumstances such as homelessness.
Michelle Zundel, chief academic officer for the Medford School District, said in a January interview that the district pays attention to all of its student categories, considering both graduation rates in measuring its progress.
"It's not enough for us to look at aggregate," she said. "We want to hold ourselves accountable for getting results for all students, and so we look at the various student groups."
While the uncertainty of those students' living situations can cause delays in their education, Bolt said it's still significant that they finish.
"When you change schools and move so much, it’s wonderful they have the option of a fifth year," she said.
It takes both academic and circumstantial support to boost students dealing with the mobility and stress of being without a home, as Crystal Tarbell knows. Tarbell dropped out of South Medford High School, re-enrolled and then dropped out of North Medford in the years that her 11-person family shared a single hotel room. She spent time couch surfing or on the streets during her sophomore and junior years until she was connected with Hearts With a Mission. With its help and that of the Maslow Project, she said she began again to envision herself graduating.
"I think it was a lot of proving it to myself that I was capable of doing it," she said.
Tarbell graduated from Central Medford High School early in 2016 and now works as a receptionist at Hearts With a Mission. She dreams of being an art therapist, working primarily with children.
"I don’t want to be what everybody thinks I’m going to be," she said. "I wanted a different life."
The Department of Education also released numbers on how many students dropped out of high school during the 2016-17 school year. There, Jackson County came in better than the Oregon rate: 8.7 percent of homeless students here dropped out, while 11.8 percent did across the state.
The countywide dropout rate for the year for all students was 3.25 percent.
Mary Ferrell, executive director of the Maslow Project, said the services the organization provides aim to tackle both fronts: dropout prevention by providing transportation and covering basic needs, and increasing graduation by helping students participate in extracurricular activities and receive academic counseling. The nonprofit works with students in four school districts: Rogue River, Medford, Ashland and Phoenix-Talent.
"We provide a lot of resources to stabilize their life outside of school," she said.
Bolt praised the Maslow Project for its work, but said there's still work ahead, as evidenced by the fact that the homeless student category consistently has the worst performance among student categories. A large part of Bolt's role is meeting with and training districts on how they can better support students experiencing homelessness — such as setting consistent attendance patterns from as early as preschool.
"I think we’re going to be seeing some improvement," she said. "Because now it's a focus."
— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.