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Oregon Has The Lowest Graduation Rate In The Country. Preschool Could Fix That.

Brothers Roy (left) and Dude Rabedeau attend Earl Boyles Elementary in Portland.
LA Johnson/NPR
Brothers Roy (left) and Dude Rabedeau attend Earl Boyles Elementary in Portland.

The US high school graduation rate is at an all-time high. But why? NPR Ed partnered with 14 member stations around the country to bring you the stories behind that number. Check out the whole story here. And find out what's happening in your state.

Dude and Roy Rabedeau are in their element running on the playground - their long blonde hair flying behind them.

Roy, 5, goes to preschool at Earl Boyles Elementary - on Portland's working-class eastern edge, but his 8-year-old brother started at the same school before there was a preschool.

"In my opinion, it's pretty clear that Dude didn't have that preschool experience - partially because of his social skills, and partially because of his interest in learning," says the boys' mother, Debra Rabedeau. "Roy is a social guy. At the same time, he's very independent, and he's very interested in learning. I think there's a difference there for sure."

Oregon has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country — just shy of 69 percent in 2013. The number has nudged up in recent years, but advocates say to make big improvements, Oregon has to start young.

Research long ago established that low-income students who attended a high-quality preschool program graduated high school 77 percent of the time, compared with 60 percent of those who did not attend preschool.

One reason is that preschool puts kids on a path toward reading by third grade.

The numbers tell a similar story in Oregon. Of high schoolers who were reading by the third grade, 77 percent graduate. But for students who struggled in those early years, the grad rate is around 53 percent, according to the state education department.

The preschool wing at the Rabedeau brothers' school is a pilot funded by the district and outside money. The state has emphasized the importance of preschool with the recent creation of a state-level Early Learning Council, but it hasn't yet committed major funds to expanding it.

Every day at school, Dude walks down the hall from his second-grade classroom for extra reading support. He sits with specialists who quiz him using flash cards — words like "years," "give" and "means." Then he puts on headphones attached to a tablet computer. He scrolls through pictures and text as he listens to a story, his quiet voice repeating the story back into a little microphone. He's making progress. But he's still behind.

Meanwhile, Roy sits on the carpet in one of the school's three pre-K rooms, drawing a picture of a snake. He's written an "s" next to it, and he's working on the "n."

Later Roy plays a dice game with a friend who rolls a two and a three. He asks Roy for help counting them up.

"I'm counting in my head," Roy tells his classmate. "Five."

Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Rob Manning has been both a reporter and an on-air host at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before that, he filled both roles with local community station KBOO and nationally with Free Speech Radio News. He's also published freelance print stories with Portland's alternative weekly newspaper Willamette Week and Planning Magazine. In 2007, Rob received two awards for investigative reporting from the Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists, and he was part of the award-winning team responsible for OPB's "Hunger Series." His current beats range from education to the environment, sports to land-use planning, politics to housing.