Two high schools outpaced West Albany's graduation rate this year, but the 6A school still tops most of the rest of the state in graduating seniors on time.
The Oregon Department of Education released the 2015-16 four-year and five-year cohort graduation rates this week for public high schools statewide. (Graduation rates include modified diplomas.)
In terms of high schools with at least 100 seniors, only Henley High School in Klamath County, with 99.25 percent, and West Linn High School in Wilsonville, with 98.06 percent, had four-year graduation rates higher than West Albany's 97.48 percent.
Cohort rates refer to the number of students who entered a public high school in Oregon during a particular year and graduated either four or five years later. The figures are adjusted to reflect any deaths or transfers to home school, private school, or schools out of state.
Statewide, rates edged up a little, from 73.83 percent to 74.83 percent. And for the first time this year, the state added a subcategory measuring the graduation rate of students who took at least one career technical education course during their years in high school. In 2015-16, CTE students graduated at a rate 10 points higher than the state average; 85.4 percent.
In 2014, West's four-year graduation rate led the entire state. And it still does when it comes to the five-year cohort rate.
It's no small feat to take in a class of 320-some individuals (on average) each year and usher all but a handful of them out the door with a diploma in four years.
But the handful that doesn't make it still bothers Principal Susie Orsborn. As she sees it, that handful didn't get connected, didn't feel a part of things, didn't build the relationships that would help see them through.
"Any dropout is too many," she said.
West Albany's goal is to get its graduation rate to 100 percent, and Orsborn has more than a dozen programs in place to make that happen.
It starts before a student ever enrolls. West Albany offers an eighth-grade transition program each summer for students from North Albany and Memorial middle schools who have struggled with one or more of three risk factors: attendance, behavior or grades.
The students spend two weeks concentrating on core subjects: math, science, reading and social studies. They work off pent-up energy with PE team-building activities, and they celebrate the end of the summer school with a group field trip based on whatever theme the program is following that year: a beach excursion for marine biology, for instance, or a visit to Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum for flight.
The summer program is a way to introduce them to West's faculty and some of their classmates as well as give them a running start on academics, Orsborn said. And it's a way to indicate what West's expectations will be.
"It's really about saying, 'You're going to be successful,'" she said. "'Failure's not going to be an option for you.'"
Once the fall term begins, West maintains that small-school atmosphere for students who might need it most. Up to 30 students each are placed in one of two self-contained "academy" classrooms, one for freshmen and one for sophomores. Students can stay in those academies for up to two years, taking all their core classes together.
For everyone else, there are study skills classes: mandatory for freshmen and sophomores, optional for older students.
Each class starts with silent reading, then moves to a vocabulary lesson: two new words each week, the same for each class, used in a variety of activities to lock down all shades of meaning.
After that, teachers set individual tasks depending on where the students most need help, bringing in tutors where necessary to get them up to speed.
"That's made a huge difference in our failure rate," Orsborn said.
Students who need assistance only in specific areas can take advantage of proficiency labs in math, social studies, foreign language or science the last periods of each day.
Credit recovery is available both school days and summer. And each school day, parent volunteers make personal phone calls to the parents and guardians of each absent student, sometimes learning in the process about an in-home crisis a counselor can help address.
Orsborn said she was excited to see the strong graduation rates for students who took career technical education classes: at West, 99 percent of students who took at least one CTE class graduated last year. With additional funding expected through Measure 98, that's an area she hopes to expand on next year.
The whole partnership doesn't work without a battalion of dedicated employees, and everyone from the office managers to the custodial staff plays a critical role, Orsborn said.
Sometimes, she acknowledged, even the strongest plans fall short.
At West, there's still that handful that doesn't make it. And across town at South Albany High, where the four-year cohort graduation rate rose from 86 to 88 percent last year, many of the same efforts are in place without yet cracking 90 percent.
Sometimes, Orsborn said, the demographic challenges win: 55 percent of South Albany's enrollment last year was considered economically disadvantaged, compared with 31 percent at West, for instance. Mobility is higher, too: 17 percent at South compared with 10 percent at West. And 13 percent of South students have taken classes to help them learn English, whereas at West the number is lower than 5 percent.
But South's rates are on the rise, and at some point, Orsborn is hopeful they can both reach 100 percent.
"If people make it a priority, I really believe we can get it done," she said.