Graduation rates improve but challenges remain

Despite Lincoln celebrating its 150th anniversary and its successes during that time, issues present 150 years ago continue to affect students to this day.

One of these issues is Lincoln’s lack of diversity compared to other high schools in the district and how it affects graduation rates, especially when it comes to students of color.

Since the 2009-2010 school year, Lincoln has had the highest overall graduation rate among Portland Public Schools, according to the “PPS Graduation Rate Trends by School.” However, in 2010-2011, Lincoln also had the lowest graduation rate of African-American students in the district, at 38 percent, according to the Willamette Week article by Hannah Hoffman, “Lincoln Posts Lowest Grad Rate for African-American Students of Any PPS High School.”

In recent years, Lincoln’s graduation rate for African-Americans has steadily increased, according to the PPS Four and Five-year Cohort Graduation and Completion Rates of All Students by School: 78 percent in 2013-2014, 84 percent in 2014-2015, 86 percent in 2015-2016, 100 percent in 2016-2017, and 94 percent in 2017-2018.

Principal Peyton Chapman came to Lincoln in 2006. She quickly noticed the problem of low graduation rates for people of color and realized that “we could stand here right now with past data, and notice if we don’t do something different, we know that our kids of color will not graduate the at the same rate as our white students.”

Since then, much of her focus has been centered around increasing graduation rates across the board.



One of the reasons the graduation rate of students of color is different than Caucasian students’ is “because the numbers are small,” says James McGee, the Vice-principal at Lincoln.

“If a couple [students] don’t make it, it makes [the graduation rate] a lot more dramatic,” he said. In 2016-2017, “we graduated 100% of our black students, but it was 10 students. It wasn’t 150.”

According to information provided by Lincoln’s administration, the racial demographics of current Lincoln students are as follows: 70 percent Caucasian, 10 percent Asian, 10 percent Hispanic, 8.2 percent Multiracial, 1.5 percent Black, 0.3 percent Native American.

In the 2018-2019 school year, there are 30 students at Lincoln who identify as Black or African-American, out of 1702.

McGee explained that “one of the advantages we have [at Lincoln] is that, because we don’t have a large number of black students, we can focus on them in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen at other schools. We’re able to drill down and we’re able to focus on those kids.”

“The number of students in some of our subgroups are so small. The smaller the cohort is, the more impactful each student is,” said Chapman.

“Barely any people know that they used to hold Black Face shows at Lin- coln and it’s racist past. 150 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to go here.

— Charlotte Odusanya, President of Sisters of Color

The Role of Whiteness

Alongside the small population of African-American students, Lincoln’s predominantly white population has played a role in the experiences of students of color during their education.

“When Lincoln started in 1869, I’m not sure if you were a student of color if you could go to any high school. That’s the history of Oregon which plays a large part on students,” Chapman said. “[Around the time Lincoln was founded], our schools were segregated based on race.”

Founded in 1869, Lincoln was created just years after the Emancipation Proclamation, when the population of black people in Oregon was low due to black exclusion laws, the Donation Land Act, a black poll tax, and laws passed by the Oregon legislature prohibiting white and black people to marry.    

“It would be exceedingly rare for this institution to not be built on racist norms and the perpetuation of white supremacy culture,” said Black Student Union co-president Gabby Cosey. “In the 1900s, they were doing minstrel shows [at Lincoln]. This history stays engraved, it doesn’t go away.”

While the Emancipation Proclamation was issued  in 1863, Portland didn’t begin integrating students of color until 1873, and only began with thirty African-American students, according to the Oregon Historical Society’s “Desegregation and Multiculturalism in the Portland Public Schools.”

“Barely any people know that they used to hold Black Face shows at Lincoln and it’s racist past. 150 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to go here,” said Charlotte Odusanya, a senior at Lincoln and the president of Sisters of Color.

“There’s definitely a difference [the way students of colors are being treated in lessons],” said Odusanya. “I’ve had experiences where we’ve been talking about slavery in classes and I’ve been the only black person in the room and students were making light of it, making jokes about it.”

“I think because we’re in a predominantly white state, predominantly white city, there’s still enough need in our country to focus on students of color and [their] achievement and the role of whiteness in our systems,” said Chapman.


Low Representation of Color in Staff

Chapman explains that another challenge students of color face is that “most teachers are still white.”

The lack of diverse representation in staff at Lincoln has negatively impacted students, she said.

From her perspective as Black Student Union co-president, Cosey agreed.

“You come into a school like Lincoln: it’s all white, and we have almost all white staff. It’s the little things, and it’s the overall atmosphere and the environment that makes [students of color] feel disconnected and detached,” said Cosey.

“I know, personally, going through all four years of high school with only having one person of color as a teacher definitely made an effect on my grades,” says Odusanya. “There has been race issues with that where I thought I haven’t been treated right by the staff because of my skin color.”

Critical Race Studies teacher Jessica Mallare-Best thinks that “[The graduation rates comes from] a lack of representation in multiple frameworks from who is in the building and also within curriculum… I think that we need to do better at creating a system of support for different cultural perspectives that are not the white dominant.”


“We’ve tried to hire the most diverse applicants. We consider and try to have our staff mirror our students,” says Chapman.

“Kids have told us that they’re more likely to show up and succeed if the curriculum reflects them,” said Chapman. “If the curriculum represents people of all racial backgrounds, then they’re more likely to be engaged and do well. If they don’t see themselves reflected in our school or the curriculum or the school’s leadership, they don’t connect.”     

Under Carole Smith, former superintendent of Portland Public Schools, administration members and teachers could be under protection from the “last hired first fired” rule maintained by PPS, as long as the member represents diversity, said Chapman.    


The Legacy

To raise awareness of the issues that impact students of color at Lincoln, Chapman continues to focus on critical race training and Courageous Conversation sessions about race. Lincoln also offers classes on cultural exploration, hip-hop, and critical race studies. On top of that, all students are now taking US History: Ethnic Studies as a graduation requirement, as opposed to the former US History. For the last eight years, under Smith’s legacy, all administration has received critical race training.

“The biggest lesson [that I teach in my classes] is how to be a good human,” said Mallare-Best. “This isn’t a class, this is a shift in our lifestyle and a call to activism. This is a form of resistance.”

“I would love to see a program past through the PPS board where they fund education for students of color to come back and serve as a teacher. PPS would pay for their master’s degree if they agree to come back and serve a certain number of years as a teacher in their community,” said Cosey. “I also think that mandatory equity trainings should be frequent at a high degree, with a high caliber of research being done. Not only for teachers but for all staff.”

“I just want for everyone to get educated on race because of the amount of microaggressions that I’ve experienced at this school on a daily basis. If everyone was educated, I feel like that would happen a lot less,” said Odusanya.

McGee concluded that “Can we be doing more? Yes, Because we’re not at 100% [graduation rate]. Until we’re at 100%, we could do more. The goal is 100% and until we graduate every one of our students each year, then absolutely there’s more that we could be doing.”