Oregon’s first Education Innovation Officer Colt Gill talks about Oregon’s dismal graduation rate and how communities and businesses can help solve the problem.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
OB: Your position was created last year. What is it designed to accomplish?
Gill: The primary work that I do is trying to improve grad outcomes in Oregon. Right now in Oregon we know that’s not happening. [Grad rates are] slowly improving but we still lag pretty far behind in other states.
[Oregon’s graduation rate is 75%, nearly 10 points below the national average]
In the spring of 2016, we had 11,665 kids that didn’t have whatever they needed to graduate with an Oregon diploma. That’s what Gov. Brown wants to turn around, and make sure all of our students, after spending that long in our school system, have the education they need to succeed in life.
OB: How can Oregon fix the problem?
Gill: In our state, this graduation issue is really an equity problem.
When you look at specific groups in Oregon [disabled students, students of color, students living in poverty] these students don’t even graduate at that average. They’re as low as 65% or 60%. For us to turn around our overall grad rates we really need to think about how we’re serving all students in Oregon.
Part of [Gov. Brown’s] strategy to address this graduation issue was to appoint this position. The way I go about this is to work directly with communities and school districts, but I also check in with researchers and students.
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OB: How are you enlisting the support of communities to address the problem?
Gill: We dug in and we got started right toward the end of July  with a grand tour in Oregon trying to build these relationships.
We talked with over 1,000 people across 32 counties to hear local perspectives what are the barriers in their communities. And really for many of our communities in Oregon that are small and rural, they were very much interested in having these discussions.
The tour ended in a study called What Will it Take to Improve Oregon’s Graduation Outcomes?
OB: What were the key findings?
— A heightened focus on equitable practices. “It came up in nearly every conversation.”
— Create meaningful, lasting relationships between students and educators. “Not focus so much on state assessments but focus on developing that strong relationship between educator and student.”
— Develop career-oriented options for students.
— Provide more accessible family support services.
— More flexibility in program funding. “This really speaks to the independence across the state.”
OB: Has your office taken action on these findings?
Gill: We had to figure out how to turn these ideas into legislation the legislature could consider. We focused in on one thing to be the most cost effective and have leverage to make significant improvement: curbing chronic absenteeism.
Truancy fines are not working. We need to look at the needs of each student, visit them at home and talk about their issues: why they don’t want to be at school and try to resolve those issues. It could be as simple as buying an alarm clock because mom and dad aren’t there to wake them up in the morning, or it could be more complex like bullying.
Gov. Kate Brown visits with Bend High School Career and Technical Education students.
OB: What challenges do schools face implementing these types of solutions?
Gill: Oregon communities and schools are hungry for support and for new ideas, but they don’t have the capacity to implement those ideas. One thing we know is one-size fits all doesn’t work. There are 197 districts in the state. We really need to ensure that we’re taking the local context into consideration when we’re developing statewide policies.
I’m exploring ways the State Board of Education and other education agencies could work to help local districts to develop local partnerships to better serve their students. As a state we would provide support for developing these local constituents … then allow for some leniency or suspension of mandates or barriers that might exist in the statewide system. What can we carve out so they can make way for innovation?
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OB: How can business partnerships support K-12 innovation goals?
Gill: I think the Oakridge School District is a great example of a business partnership with their school district and coming up with a community-wide goal. They developed a program for absenteeism and worked with local businesses in the small community delivering not only incentive for students to be rewarded when they’re going to school regularly, but signs in the community talk about the organization. If one of businesses see school age children [during school hours], they might say, ‘Why are you not in school today?’ A business partnership might be as simple as that.
OB: Career-technical education can also keep more kids in school.
Gill: As we implement Measure 98 [a 2016 initiative to fund college and career readiness programs], we’ll see more career technical education. Making it relevant and apply to the work. As students are going through those programs — culinary arts, engineering or hospitality services — all of those students need to hear what it’s like and we need to make it as realistic as possible.
For example, an Eastern Oregon hospital is working with the high school that is developing a career tech ed nursing program. When students graduate from the program they’re licensed as a CNA. Then at graduation [the hospital] hands them a job offer as they walk off the stage. Those are some of the things we’ll be looking for.
OB: Are you optimistic about turning Oregon challenges into opportunities?
I’m a lifelong Oregonian. I went to [all Oregon schools] and spent 27 years in education, 10 years as a superintendent. All of that time I’ve been very impressed with the education system in Oregon. We’re consistently looked at as an innovative and progressive state. Other states look to Oregon as sort of a test state to what’s working in education. I think that’s still true to a great degree. I believe it’s that kind of belief in our students and the future we want for them that will make these kinds of programs successful.