Health & Education

Willamina graduation rate rises above state average

02.15.2024 Sherron Lumley Education


By Sherron Lumley

Smoke Signals staff writer

New data released by the Oregon Department of Education last month shows the Willamina School District improved its on-time graduation rate to 84%, climbing above the Oregon average of 81.3%.

During the past five years, the on-time graduation rate in Willamina has risen 15%.

“The Willamina School District is proud of the improvements in our graduation rates,” Superintendent Carrie Zimbrick said. “It continues to be a work in progress.”

Willamina had 867 students in grades K-12 last year, and approximately one in three are American Indian or Alaska Native. The school district’s Title VI director works with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde to review the federal forms and check for students missing from the list.

However, state data for Willamina counts a significantly lower number, just 20% of students, as American Indian/Alaska Native. This is due to the U.S. Department of Education requirements to place American Indian/Hispanic students in the Hispanic/Latino category, and mixed race American Indian students in the multi-racial category.

Zimbrick said as per district registration information, 282 students identify as Native.

“This includes students who select Hispanic/American Indian as well,” she said. “We have 237 when the Hispanic subgroup is omitted.”

Zimbrick estimates that if the district includes students who identify as Native, Hispanic and Native or multi-racial, the number is approximately 37%.

Graduation rate bucks national trend

The school district’s success in raising the on-time graduation rate appears to overcome a national and state achievement gap between rural school districts and urban ones.

Grand Ronde Tribal member students are doing even better than most, Zimbrick said.  

“The success of our Native students is a reflection of the dedicated investment in education by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde,” Zimbrick said.  

The Tribe’s Education Department provides academic and cultural opportunities for students from early childhood education through college. Education Department Manager Angela Fasana said more than 1,000 Tribal members have graduated from higher education programs after graduating from high school as of 2023.

 In addition to working with the Tribe to support students, the Willamina School District provides federal Title VI Indian Education, a program designed to assist educational achievement and Native cultural awareness for students. Yet, despite years of hard work and intense focus, there are ongoing areas of concern in the state statistics for Willamina, which were released in January 2024.

The state report shows a small improvement in the number of Willamina third-graders meeting state expectations for English Language Arts, just 20% compared to 40% statewide.

Another benchmark, eighth-grade math, had less than 5% students in Willamina who met grade-level expectations, compared to a state average of 26%. Regular attendance is also below the state’s low average of 62%. However, Zimbrick provided more background information.

 “In 2016 we were identified by the Oregon Department of Education as a district in need of improvement,” she said. “We dove into the work of implementing a full scale improvement plan. We analyzed student data to identify needs and developed a three-year plan to improve in two key areas: academic student outcomes and school culture.”

In order to address academic improvements, Willamina worked to ensure teachers had adequate resources, particularly updated curriculum.

“Improving school culture required us to start with our staff,” Zimbrick added. “We invested in RULER, an emotional intelligence curriculum. The first year began with staff training followed by classroom implementation. We also focused on an attendance initiative, family engagement activities, and expanded mental and behavioral health support.”

Tribal education staff are an integral part of Willamina’s improvement efforts, Zimbrick said. Tribal staff during the school day include academic coaches and Chinuk Wawa instructors. Programs offered by the Tribe outside of the school day include afterschool and summer programs.

In Oregon, 68.9% of American Indian/Alaska Native students graduated from high school on time in 2022, which was a record high, up from 53.5% in 2011, but still far behind the general student population. Consequently, Oregon’s education leaders, citing the disparity in educational achievement in the state, made a decision last fall to suspend certain graduation requirements. In October, the Oregon Board of Education voted unanimously to suspend high school graduation “essential skills” requirements that had been adopted in 2008, proving proficiency in reading, writing and math.  

Instead, Oregon chose to prioritize attendance and investing in culturally responsive practices for historically underserved students. Willamina is one of 38 school districts in the state with 40% or more diverse students.

Willamina’s attendance improvement efforts include meeting with families to discuss supports the district can offer to get students to school on a regular basis. This may include providing gas cards, bus passes and rides to school, as well as incentives for good or improved attendance. The school district also receives grant funding to provide free breakfast and lunch for all students.

Twelve miles from Grand Ronde, the Sheridan School District has 963 students, and according to the state, 6% are American Indian/Alaska Native students. The on-time graduation rate in 2022-23 was 78%. In Sheridan, 64% of students attended regularly last year, up 10% in one year.

There were 25% of third-graders meeting state expectations in English Language Arts, up 9%. Additionally, 23% of eighth-graders met state grade level for math, up 16% since 2022.

Willamina offers several career and technical education programs to students that include agriculture, woodworking, horticulture, animal science and forestry. Students who participate in career and technical education programs have consistently higher graduation rates than their peers as per the state data.

Sheridan hopes to provide its students with additional learning opportunities, such as Willamina has since 2017, with the Barbara Roberts Career Tech School. It would provide career track studies in agricultural science, manufacturing, diesel mechanics, firefighting and emergency medical technician services. With $1.9 million in Oregon Lottery funds, Sheridan purchased the land, but lacks the $14 million needed to build the facility.  

“Education and economic development would transform this community in a positive way,” Sheridan Superintendent Dorie Vickery said to a gathering of local leaders on the site of the proposed center in January.

Politicians, educators, business owners and Tribal managers who attended expressed interest when discussing the need for a pipeline of skilled workers who would stay in the area. The question of who will pay for it remains.

Oregon has a voter-approved cap limiting the amount of property taxes that can be used for school funding. Consequently, new funding for career and technical education often must come from private philanthropists and charitable donations rather than the state.

For more information on the reports visit: and then enter “Willamina SD 30J” or “Sheridan SD 48J” into the search bar. 

Sheridan Grad Rates 2022-23 / Willamina Grad Rates 2022-23