From worst…to first.
That’s been the story at Madras High School when it comes to Indigenous student graduation rates.
Indigenous students make up roughly a third of the student population, and this year, more than 95% of them are graduating.
That’s nearly 30% higher than the national average, and a far cry from ten years ago, when the school held one of the lowest Indigenous student graduation rates in the state.
For many students, graduation is milestone not just for themselves, but for their families.
“My mom didn’t graduate, but she got her GED,” said Madras High senior Chantelle Henry.
She plans to attend Central Oregon Community College to study nursing next year.
“I’m probably going to be one of the first ones since my dad,” said senior LeBron Thompson, who plans to become an electrician.
The school’s Native American Liaison Butch David said the turning point came around nine years ago, under former Co-Principals Mark Neffendorf and H.D. Weddel.
“My first couple weeks working with this new administration…we were in a staff meeting one day…and I remember him (Neffendorf) saying in our meeting ‘we’re failing these kids’,” David said.
“From that meeting on, he said ‘we’re going to improve graduation rates, we’re going to improve kids going to college, we’re going to approve attendance.’”
David said one of the largest barriers for Indigenous students is the amount of time it takes to get from their homes on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation to the high school.
“Some of those kids show up at the bus at a quarter to six, and they don’t get here to the high school until 7:50,” he said.
“So they’re on that bus quite a while to get here to go to school, and lot of them figured out if you missed the bus, a lot of families cannot be able to bring them into school because it’s quite a ways out, or they work.”
Henry used to ride the bus herself, but began driving to school during her junior year.
“Once a person misses a bus from Warm Springs, most times they don’t have a ride and they don’t have people who can come and take them to school,” she said. “So if they miss the bus, they’re just stuck at home unless they can get a ride to the transit.”
But once they arrive, school administrators make sure they’re well taken care of.
“We take one grade each week and we cover every student and how they’re doing academically, or with their attendance, or with their behavior, whether they’re involved in extracurricular actives,” said Principal Brian Crook, “And we have a game plan for those seniors that aren’t on track to make sure they do graduate.”
Crook said involvement in extracurricular activities, as well as the school’s CTE (Career & Technical Education) courses, have been proven to boost a student’s chances of graduating.
“I think we’ve built a culture here of respect, and a culture here of care,” he said. “I’ve been here five years, but I’ve heard that’s changed a lot here, where kids love coming to Madras High School and being a part of this community here and I think that’s a big part of it.”
The school’s ‘Future Center’, established several years ago, helps students keep future goals and college planning at the front of their minds.
“At the beginning of the year, we talk about a lot of financial aid and scholarships, so I help them with writing essays,” said the center’s coordinator, Samantha Loza.
They conduct evaluations when they begin working with students in order to identify their needs and make sure their program helps fill in the gaps.
“In part of the survey, we do ask whether their parents had graduated from high school or what their highest level of education was,” Loza said. “It was important for me to put that in there, because I knew from growing up here that a lot of students do have families who…education wasn’t the main priority.”
“Even though I don’t work with students specifically on graduation, we’re talking post-secondary, the fact that there is that future-centered perspective…I think that also helps students stay motivated to complete.”
Henry said the Future Center was a major help to her while filling out college applications.
“When I was filling out my FAFSA, Ms. Loza was helping me and my dad figure out how to do all that, and I think the counselors do a good job of showing us options and ways that we can get help with our schoolwork and all that,” she said.
A culture of encouragement and respect…creating a welcome environment for students and staff alike.
“These kids are amazing, they push hard, they work hard,” Loza said. “They have some amazing dreams, and I just can’t wait to see where they land.”
“I feel proud, there’s a sense of community that we get from that, and how our community is just getting stronger and stronger,” Henry added.
“The people are wanting to better themselves and better our community, and just make the reservation a better place of living. I like that.”
Madras High School’s graduation will take place this year on June 4 at 11:30 a.m. in their football stadium.