More students in Union and Wallowa counties are making commencement walks, according to the state’s latest graduation statistics.

Oregon Department of Education figures indicate in 2017-18 graduation rates climbed in most Union and Wallowa county public high schools. The figures also reveal eight of the public high schools in the two counties topped the state average of 78.7 percent.

Stepping to the head of the class locally are Imbler, Union and Wallowa high schools, all of which reached the 100 percent mark for 2017-18. Imbler’s graduation rate increased 3.3 percent from 2016-17, Union’s is up 6.9 percent and Wallowa’s rose by 11.76 percent.

Graduation rates also jumped at La Grande High School, which rose 6.55 percent to 86.42 percent, and at Enterprise High School, which was up 8.1 percent to a total of 96.67 percent.

La Grande High School’s graduation rate is up for the third straight year. The school’s graduation rate has increased a total of 12.11 percent from 2013-14, when it was 74.31 percent.

“It is nice to have an upward trend. It shows that something significant is going on,” said LHS Principal Brett Baxter.

Baxter said the increase reflects many things, including the high school’s efforts to align curriculum with state standards.

The LHS principal also said there appears to be a strong correlation with the La Grande School District’s rising graduation rate and the creation of the school District’s Professional Learning Communities program about seven years ago. The PLC program facilitates educators working together to develop individualized data-driven strategies to help students.

LHS’s graduation numbers, upon closer inspection, look as solid as the concrete pillars supporting the roof over its main entrance. The stats indicate LHS has strong graduation numbers across the board in 11 sub-categories, including special education, students from economically disadvantaged families and students for whom English is a second language.

Students in all 11 of these categories had graduation rates of at least 80 percent, Baxter said.

Student improvement in the special education category has been particularly impressive, rising from a 59.3 graduation rate in 2013-14 to 80 percent in 2017-18.

Baxter was also heartened to see that the number of boys graduating is also growing. The rate was 75 percent in 2016-17 and 89.47 percent in 2017-18.

The ODE’s latest figures also indicate that LHS students who took multiple Career Technical Education classes — such as business, biomedical studies, welding and agriculture-natural resources — had a graduation rate of 97.4 percent. Baxter said students in CTE classes tend to have a higher graduation rates because they are involved in hands-on learning about subjects that have a real world application.

The La Grande School District boosted LHS’s CTE programs significantly in recent years with funds from a $31.5 million bond voters approved in 2014. Funds from the bond have been used to build a new CTE building, purchase state-of-the-art equipment and more.

Among the many people Baxter cited as responsible for helping boost the LHS graduation rates is Scott Carpenter, the school district’s director of curriculum and Title I programs. Carpenter served as LHS’s assistant principal for five years before taking his present position last summer.

“Scott has had an amazing and integral part in this,” Baxter said.

La Grande School District Superintendent George Mendoza said LHS’s improved graduation rate is a credit to teachers and staff at LHS and throughout the school district.

“When you have a lot of wonderful educators all working together, great things happen for students,” Mendoza said.

Union School District Superintendent Carter Wells expressed a similar sentiment when discussing his high school’s 100 percent mark.

“It shows that our staff is doing a great job of getting students to the end goal, a high school diploma,” he said.

Wells noted, for example, that the staff at UHS’s office has been very diligent about making sure all high school students are meeting graduation requirements. UHS’s 100 percent mark comes after a sterling five-year stretch, during which its graduation rates ranged from 92 percent to 97.14 percent.

Imbler High School’s 100 percent mark was its fourth in the past five years. Imbler School District Superintendent Angie Lakey-Campbell credits this to teachers and staff who put in extra time to help students. She added that the local students benefit from being raised in a community that values a strong work ethic.

Lakey-Campbell said IHS’s high graduation rates has led to high expectations for the school district.

“That is okay,” she said. “You achieve excellence by expecting it.”

Wallowa High School, like IHS, has a stellar record. It too has had a 100 percent graduation rate four of the past five years.

Enterprise High School has also posted noteworthy graduation marks the past five years. It has topped the 90 percent mark four of the past five years.

“It is a tribute to our staff,” said Enterprise High School Principal Blake Carlsen. “It is a wonderful achievement. We are proud and excited.”

Joseph High School also had an outstanding graduation mark at 93.33 percent for 2017-18. Joseph has topped 90 percent four of the past five years. JHS reached the 100 percent level in 2014-15 and in 2016-17.

See complete story in Monday's Observer