McNary earns top graduation rate in the district

McNary’s class of 2021 received their diplomas on Wednesday, June 9 at Volcanoes Stadium (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings).

While the rest of the state experienced a slight decrease, McNary High School’s class of 2021 posted one of the best graduation rates in the state, continuing the notable recent success for the school.

McNary’s 2021 four-year senior cohort received the top mark in the Salem-Keizer School District with a graduation rate of 96.23%, over 16% higher than the state average and more than five percentage points higher than last school year.

It is the fourth highest graduation rate in the state among schools that had 100 kids or more in their graduating class.

“It’s a great feeling to have the success that we did. It evokes a tremendous sense of pride. The efforts from staff to navigate some of the roughest stretches in recent history has been incredible,” McNary Principal Erik Jespersen said. “Not only did they give kids all their educational needs, but also social and emotional needs.

“This is a K-12 accomplishment. Our Keizer schools played a big part of this. This is a win for Keizer.”

Jespersen said that one of the key reasons for the school’s success was safely bringing in select students for in-person learning at a time when the entire state was participating in school virtually.

In November 2020, it was estimated that nearly half of the nearly 13,000 high schoolers in Salem-Keizer Public Schools (SKPS) were failing at least one class. During a two-day period, McNary hosted a total of 300 students in 56 cohorts for in-person instruction.

The aggressive approach paid dividends for McNary, who was able to cut their failing grades down from 38% to 17% before the month of December.

“School was significantly altered, but we figured out how to get kids in the building during distance learning. I think that made all the difference,” Jespersen said. “That was our teachers, our (instructional assistants) our people doing whatever it took to help our kids. It was about face to face contact.”

Building and developing relationships is a priority for Jespersen and his staff, and it’s how McNary was able to overcome multiple challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in regards to school.

Before students returned to school for hybrid learning in April 2021, McNary staff members organized hundreds of home visits with kids that were either struggling with school or lacked the resources to get their assignments done in a timely fashion.

“Our home visits really worked. I was a little bit hesitant to do it at first, but kids responded really well to us leaving our desks and showing them that we cared,” said Aris Astorga, the community school outreach coordinator for McNary. “Just meeting with them face-to-face was much better than a phone call.”

“It involved a lot of problem solving. There were some kids that didn’t have access to the internet, so we would get them a mobile hotspot. Others just needed a place to charge their Chromebook. For those that didn’t like working on a computer, we would provide them with printed out assignments. It was a team effort. Everyone was so supportive and flexible,” added Claudia Rios, a graduation coach at McNary.

As a freshman, each student at McNary gets assigned a teacher who serves as their advisor for all four years of high school. Having an advisor be one of the main points of contact worked well for the school during distance learning.

“We are a large high school, but we are trying to make it as relational as possible,” Jespersen said. “I am so proud of our staff. They cared about kids and made sure that they had what they needed.”

Over the last few years, Jespersen’s effort to hire teachers that are bilingual in Spanish and English has resulted in increased graduation rates for the school’s Latino population.

When Jespersen took over as principal in 2014-15, Latino students, which represent approximately one-third of the McNary student body, had a graduation rate of 73%. The 2019-20 Latino cohort improved on that mark by nearly 20 percentage points (91.25%).

That number increased once again last year as Latino students in the class of 2021 graduated at a 95.32% rate.

“A lot of our Spanish-speaking staff members have been really good at creating relationships with our Spanish-speaking parents, so that when those parents call the school, they can ask for a specific person. I feel like that has played a big part in the grad rate. They have someone at the school they can connect with,” Astorga said. “Everyone is looking out for our kids and people are going above and beyond to help them. That is the reason they are succeeding,”

Two of McNary’s additional subgroups also saw jumps in graduation rate. Special education students, or students on an individualized learning plan, graduated at a 96.34% clip, a jump of nearly 14 percentage points from last year. Economically disadvantaged students, on the other hand, crossed the podium at a 95.44% clip, an increase of four percentage points from 2020.

“We have been committed to closing all achievement gaps at McNary High School. We have really been intentional about working with families to make sure every student receives a great education,” Jespersen said. “We look at our framework/data and make adjustments to fit the needs of our kids. That’s our formula. We know our data really well and so does our staff.”