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Jefferson High School’s graduating class of 2015
By Melanie Sevcenko | The Skanner News
Published: 09 February 2017

Back in 2010, the four-year high school graduation rate for Portland Public Schools was under 55 percent. For African American students, it sat at 44 percent.

But in recent years, one program in particular has been making strides to improve the academic performance of the city’s most vulnerable students. 

As a nonprofit organization, Self Enhancement Inc.  has been supporting at-risk urban youth in the greater Portland area for more than 30 years. It offers both academic and nonacademic services, as well as college and career preparation, parenting resources and counseling.

When Jefferson High School in North Portland – Oregon’s only remaining majority-Black public high school – took a look at SEI’s graduation rates, it got inspired. For two decades, 97 percent of SEI’s predominantly low-income African American core program students have been graduating from high school on time, and 85 percent were going on to post-secondary education.

SEI’s success lies in its integrated approach, according to president and CEO Tony Hopson Sr.

“SEI services the students, the families, the schools and the community,” Hopson said. “It also maintains its relationship with students from elementary school through college or a family wage job, basically until students become adults.”

Threatened with closure due to declining enrollment and poor performance – with only around half of the senior class graduating – Jefferson decided to use the its negative statistics as a catalyst for change.

In 2011, the high school partnered with Portland Public Schools and Self Enhancement Inc. to create the SEI Whole School Model for underserved youth – and the results have continued to improve year by year.

The program works by making available SEI’s mentoring, tutoring, and wraparound support services to every student enrolled at Jefferson. Presently, the Whole School Model serves roughly 400 students at the high school.

“SEI helps within the school day, but also the pieces that fall outside of that,” explained Jefferson principal Margaret Calvert of the program’s after-school services, which include homework tutorials, computers classes, performing arts and recreation. “We’ve knit a pretty tight social fabric, so there’s less gaps through which students can disengage from school.”

In 2016, 84 percent of Jefferson’s 123 seniors received diplomas, a big leap from a 58 percent graduation rate back in 2012.

More than half of those seniors were enrolled in the SEI Whole School Model and graduated at a 98 percent rate.

All Black students in the program graduated at an 88 percent rate, outpacing Oregon’s 76 percent graduation rate for White students.

Moreover, Jefferson’s graduation achievements have closed the gaps between African American, Latino and White students.

“We believe that the SEI Model is the solution to the graduation rate crisis, not only in Portland Public Schools, but for our entire state,” Hopson said. “Our recent success in moving Jefferson’s entire school from 54 percent to 84 percent is unprecedented in our state.”

Statewide, Oregon has made recent advancements in its graduation rates, which ranked third worst in the nation in 2015, after New Mexico and Nevada.   

According to data provided by the Oregon Department of Education, the state now rests at a 74.8 percent graduation rate, an increase of nearly three points in two years.

Even more staggering is the fact that the graduation rate for almost all historically underserved student populations increased at a faster rate than the overall graduation rate.

Highlights from ODE’s report include:

  • In total, Oregon graduated 1,300 more students in 2016 than in the previous year
  • African American students up 3.6 points to 66.1 percent (53.3 percent in 2011)
  • American Indian/Alaska Native students up 1.4 points to 56.4 percent (50.8 percent in 2011)
  • Hispanic/Latino students up 2.0 points to 69.4 percent (59.5 percent in 2011)
  • Asian students up 0.5 points to 88.0 percent (80.7 percent in 2011)
  • White students up 0.6 points to 76.6 percent (69.1 percent in 2011)
  • Multi-Racial students up 1.7 points to 74.4 percent (69.1 percent in 2011)


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