It's only the second year of measurement, but so far, Oregon's shift back toward vocational education appears to be paying off in higher graduation rates.
The Oregon Department of Education released four-year cohort graduation rates today for the 2016-17 academic year. This is the second year that data has included graduation rates for students in vocational-technical courses.
Students who took at least half a credit of career technical education at some point in their high school career graduated at a rate of 86.3 percent, well above the total average of 77 percent. They're known as CTE participants.
Graduation rates were even higher for students who took at least one full CTE credit: 91.7 percent. They're known as CTE concentrators.
In Linn and Benton counties, 15 of the 17 high school programs followed the trend, with students in at least one of the CTE categories graduating at a higher percentage than their classmates. Of those, 12 districts beat at least one state average CTE grad rate, too.
Educators say they believe the trend will continue, and that the results are to be expected.
Eric Frazier, who teaches construction at Lebanon High School, said he thinks graduation rates improve when students find an elective that interests them. It doesn't have to be vocational.
"I'd like to say construction is the only way anybody ever goes to school and graduates, but that would not be accurate. It's any extracurricular activity," he said.
Whether they're participating in band, computers or athletics, students who have an additional reason to come to school participate more because they don't want to lose the chance to take the things they like best, Frazier said."There's just a lot of cool things out there that kids enjoy doing, and they can see themselves doing it for a living."
Lebanon, which has struggled with four-year cohort graduation rates, saw an overall increase from 72 to 73 percent this year. CTE kids really shone, however: The graduation rate for students who took at least half a credit was nearly 84 percent, and the CTE "concentrators" rate was 91 percent.
The district has worked hard at emphasizing career and technical opportunities in recent years. Lebanon High School currently offers classes in 10 CTE programs, including culinary arts, health professions and welding. Superintendent Rob Hess said that's the most the school has provided in the last two decades, but a district committee is evaluating ways to expand opportunities even more.
Even West Albany High School, which has recorded some of the highest graduation rates in Oregon in recent years, saw a boost from CTE: nearly 96 percent of all West students graduated on time in 2016-17, but that rate jumped to nearly 97 percent for CTE participants and nearly 99 percent for CTE concentrators.
South Albany's overall graduation rate stayed about the same at 88 percent, but there, too, CTE students shone, coming in at 93 or nearly 93 percent for both concentrators and participants.
Greater Albany Public Schools placed heavy emphasis on CTE programs when it asked voters to pass a $159 million bond measure last year. The measure passed, and work will include vocational-technical upgrades for science, technology, engineering and math at Albany's middle schools, as well as a multiuse vocational space at South Albany High School.
Superintendent Jim Golden said he's particularly happy with overall graduation rates, especially compared to the state average. A longtime CTE supporter, the superintendent said he's working with Albany-area businesses to support and expand programs at both high schools and middle schools.
Strong programs will lead to better job opportunities, he said, but also will benefit students who go on to higher education, such as those who enroll in engineering programs at Oregon State University.
The full report, which includes four- and five-year cohort graduation rates in multiple subcategories, will be available online at http://www.oregon.gov/ODE/Pages/default.aspx.
State officials said along with recent CTE success, they're proud to see graduation rates rising for students in categories that tend to struggle, such as migrant students, English learners and students with disabilities. The graduation rate in those categories jumped 7 points last year from the prior year, whereas the overall graduation rate climbed only 2 percentage points.
Lebanon and Albany have seen particular growth in the four-year graduation rates for students of Hispanic/Latino background. In Lebanon, last year's rate was almost 77 percent, beating the rest of the Lebanon graduates, the state's overall graduation rate and the state's rate for Hispanic/Latino graduates.
In Albany, Latino students at South Albany High School graduated at a rate of 92 percent, also higher than all three categories. And at West, 100 percent of students in the Hispanic/Latino category — 35 of them in 2016-17 — walked away with a diploma after four years.
"This is a nice trend," Golden said, "and we will continue to improve our focus on equity and on diversifying our workforce so that we do a better job with our Hispanic students at GAPS."