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Charter dragged down grad rate in Central Oregon district

By KAILEY FISICAROFebruary 8, 2017

BEND, Ore. (AP) — After years of an online charter lowering Crook County School District’s graduation rate, the district is happy to correct the record.

While the district’s sole traditional high school, Crook County High, had a graduation rate of 85.09 percent in 2014-15, its districtwide graduation rate was 46.03 percent that school year.

Why the discrepancy?

“It was an online charter, Insight,” Stacy Smith, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, said.

Insight School of Oregon’s graduation rate in 2014-15 was 19.08 percent. In Oregon, where charter schools are privately run and publicly funded, they must be sponsored by a school district.

“They came to us because charter schools need a district sponsor,” Smith said. “To be honest, it’s lucrative.”

As Insight’s sponsor, Crook County School District received a portion of the money the state contributes per student for each of Insight’s students. The district sponsored Insight for three school years. It received about $330,000 in 2012-13 and about $400,000 in 2013-14 and 2014-15. On average, the extra money coming in was about 1 percent of the school district’s budget each year, but the money was still helpful.

Smith said when the idea to sponsor the online charter was pitched to the school district, there weren’t conversations about, “what if (Insight) can’t get kids to test or what if they have horrific graduation rates?” Instead, the school district was concerned what would happen if the charter went out of business.

“What I remember was: There’s a financial gain to the district for doing this, but it was also the opportunity to give kids another chance to be successful in high school,” Smith said.

At the time, the school district didn’t have an online option for students, and Insight could provide that. Since ending its relationship with Insight, the school district added an online school option for its students.

Crook County School District began sponsoring Insight in the 2012-13 school year, when the district was still recovering from the Great Recession.

“At the time the district made the decision, the district was healing,” Smith said. “We didn’t feel like we were rolling in money.”

Anna Logan, the district’s director of business and finance, agreed the district was still in recovery mode at the time. During the recession, many classes were cut, teachers were laid off and money for sports was completely eliminated, Logan said. All money for sports was raised by students, families and the community. At the end of the 2009 fiscal year, the school district’s fund balance was about $200,000.

“That’s really low — that’s dangerously low,” Logan said. “We’ve since recovered to a normal, healthy fund balance. But there were a lot of people in the school district who still had feelings of trauma from all they’d been through.”

When the idea came to sponsor Insight, money for athletics and outdoor school was still being raised in the community, there were no music teachers in elementary schools and the district’s technology was outdated. An extra $400,000 for the district, with the bonus of having an online option for students, sounded like a good plan.

When the district started to see how much the school was struggling with graduation rates and getting its students to take state tests, it reached out to help the online school, Smith said. But it was difficult, he pointed out, when both teachers and students were out of the area. More than 90 percent of students enrolled in Insight were from elsewhere in Oregon.

In 2012-13, Insight’s first year with the school district, its graduation rate was 10.45 percent. The following school year it was 16.18 percent. In those years, Crook County High School students in an advance diploma program, where students meet graduation requirements but stay on for one year of free community college, were reported as not having graduated, which artificially lowered the high school’s graduation rate. Those factors combined led to low districtwide graduation rates in 2013 and 2014. But the disparity between Insight and Crook County as a whole became even more clear the following year, when the advance diploma program ended.

The low graduation rate of the district’s alternative school, Pioneer Secondary Alternative High School, also brings down the district average each year, but to a lesser degree. And its graduation rate, too, is affected by students who may not even live in Crook County. Lumped into Pioneer’s 2015-16 graduation rate are students from Insight who never transferred to another district when Insight left Crook County School District. Rimrock Trails adolescent drug and alcohol treatment center has an educational component for its clients, and that graduation rate is also included in Pioneer’s reported graduation data, Smith said. Like Insight, the great majority of those students are not actually from Crook County. Smith said Pioneer Secondary Alternative High School’s graduation rate of its own students is actually closer to about 50 percent.

Insight, now Insight School of Oregon-Painted Hills, has since transferred school districts. Mitchell School District in Wheeler County has one K-12 school and began sponsoring the online school in the 2015-16 school year. The head of school at Insight, which is operated by the for-profit K12 Inc., did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

At Crook County High School, Principal Michelle Jonas and Assistant Principal Joel Hoff said they did worry about the false impression the affected district graduation rate might have given. But the high school and district sent messages to parents making the true graduation rate at Crook County High clear. Because of that, Hoff thinks, he never got calls from parents upset about a low graduation rate.

“I think it’s just hard when you’re seeing a number without the story, so we did our best when the graduation rates were released to communicate what’s going on,” Jonas said.

Even without Insight included in its most recent graduation data, that practice still continues. When 2015-16 graduation rates came out at the end of last month, Crook County School District sent out a release highlighting Crook County High School’s rate in 2015-16.

At 89.47 percent, it was the highest in Central Oregon.

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Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com

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