By Jody Davis

Special to the Curry Pilot

Its that time of year again.

The time when family members, friends and the community as a whole assemble to cheer on the newest class of Brookings-Harbor High School graduates and welcome them into the adult tribe.

A time to exchange a life of childhood comforts and familiar routines, for a brand new exciting world of the unknown, full of newfound independence and a fresh mindset where anything is possible. A time for reaping much-deserved rewards and accolades for the plethora of hard work put in over the past 12 years — a full two-thirds of their young lifetimes, so far.

“There is lots of nostalgia on graduation day,” reflects Nancy Raskauskas-Coons, Brookings-Harbor School District public information officer.

In addition to being recognized for their own achievements, she adds “Graduation is also a time for students to recognize all of the people that held them up along the way.”

This year’s ceremony is 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday on Elmer Bankus Field. Presentations for honors in academic excellence will be made by BHHS Principal Lisa Dion, Superintendent Sean Gallagher and select board members. Dave Carroll, a former Azalea Middle School teacher, is scheduled to deliver the Keynote address.

Added to the program this year, will be a special tribute prepared by Class of 2019 students for their former friend and classmate, Edgar Omar Canales.

Canales would have been a part of this year’s graduating class if it weren’t for his unfortunate death from cancer in 2017. In addition to a heartfelt presentation, a front-row chair on the field will be reserved in his honor.

Receiving high honors this year are Valedictorians Nathaniel Barnard (accepted to Stanford University), Jonathan Kleespies (accepted to George Fox University), Kaylee Strain (accepted to Weber State Honors College), Mayce McCollum (accepted to Concordia University) and Salutatorian Aynika Nelson (accepted to Barnard College).

Dana Nelson, proud mother of Aynika Nelson, believes the support her daughter received while attending the school was paramount to her success as a student.

“As a parent, I was really pleased, overall, with the high school and felt she had a lot of support from the whole administration and staff. I do think they did a great job helping the kids succeed by supporting their goals and helping students identify and follow their dreams towards college and future success in life,” Nelson said.

She added, “The town has also been amazing, from what I’ve witnessed, in supporting Aynika and all the kids. They have been ready to help with everything from the ACLU Summer Teens program to the Knowledge Bowl, and also the Robotics Club, etc.”

Nelson continued, “There were many generous donors, and also people passionate about helping raise money towards these events and funding the kids’ travel and other needs. For a very small town, we also have amazing scholarship programs. I’m very thankful for all of the kindness and generosity and passion I’ve witnessed.”

Raskauskas-Coons believes student success and the general upturn they have seen in recent year’s graduation rates is likely due to a combination of factors. She says the district has implemented several important support programs in recent years that aim to boost all types of students.

Programs currently offered include such things as additional tutoring and after-school support, a summer school option to allow completion of missing credits needed for graduation, and new and evolving opportunities for students to earn both high school and college credits through partnerships with Southwestern Oregon Community College (SWOCC), Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT) and Southern Oregon University (SOU).

In addition to acquiring valuable college transfer credits, students can now also take advantage of the opportunity to earn official certificates, which show proficiency in subjects like personal information technology, digital graphics, welding and other construction trades, as well as various choices in the medical field made available through allied health.

Raskauskas-Coons says zeroing in this year on the districts long-standing problems with student absenteeism has also proven beneficial. She points out, “Its difficult to graduate if you don’t go to class.”

This year’s implementation of Truancy Court has served to facilitate productive communication between students, parents and the school in an effort to identify and address the real issues underlying a particular student’s problematic attendance. Raskauskas-Coons feels having the intervention-like conversation at the courthouse between all parties involved helps to accentuate the importance of the situation at hand.

This more comprehensive, multifaceted approach to student success aims to better recognize and address the needs of students who may be struggling, as well as to provide additional curriculum opportunities that will give students an extra jump on employment opportunities right out of the gate.

Tracking student progress more closely, combined with early intervention, and fostering a culture where graduation is aspired to and is the expected norm, has contributed to a wholistic approach which is likely responsible for the positive shift in Raskauskas-Coons’ opinion.

Looking back more than a decade ago, she reports, the school district graduation rates struggled to achieve higher than 55-60%. Recent year’s rates have shown much improvement and, other than a slight, unexpected dip last year, they have been steadily climbing reflecting an encouraging trend.

According to the Oregon Department of Education, BHHS Class of 2018 settled at a graduation level of 74%, based on an original class size of 133 total students. This was down slightly from 2017’s report of 76.98%, which was slightly higher than the 76.65% state-wide average for that same year. Oregon’s state-wide average graduation rate in 2018 was 79%, with 85% representing the national average. Class of 2016 graduation rate for BHHS was 70.50%.

Official numbers for the Class of 2019 will not be available until January of 2020, but Raskauskas-Coons expects this year’s class data to reflect a similar pattern as what we have seen in the last few years.

Raskauskas-Coons states that, although it is good to recognize data which seems to be generally moving in a positive direction, the district would ultimately like to see graduation rates reach 90% or even above, someday, and are doing their best to reach that goal.

Another way the district plans to increase graduation rates is by inspiring young people, early on, to graduate.

A special activity has been added in recent years, which seems to be doing just that.

The graduate procession, which will be held on Friday, June 7th at 9:00 a.m., and will travel through Kalmiopsis Elementary School, Azalea Middle School and Brookings-Harbor High. The activity provides a unique opportunity for graduating Seniors to thank teachers and staff members for helping them get to their ultimate goal, as well as providing remaining students with encouragement and a way of showing there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Raskauskas-Coons believes the event has become integral to the graduation festivities and is proving to be invaluable as a way of encouraging and inspiring the younger students in a tangible way.

“The procession inspires young people to make graduation a goal, early on. It provides an opportunity to get the culture of graduation all the way down to the youngest of students,” Raskauskas-Coons said.

Throughout both the procession and the graduation, itself, new graduates will surely inspire young minds to see the big picture, and serve as a shining testament to the rewards of perseverance.