SALEM, OR (KPTV) - Salem-Keizer Public Schools is making sure every student not only gets a great education, but graduates and excels.
About four years ago, Cynthia Richardson landed the first ever role of its kind at Salem-Keizer Public Schools, Director of Student Equity, Access and Advancement.
“I’m very passionate in making sure all students' needs are met," said Richardson.
An obvious choice, after serving the district for more than 20-years in various roles, including principal. During her time as a school leader, she made it her mission and succeeded at helping more kids leave school with diplomas.
“We needed those systems district-wide," said Richardson. "So, it was an opportunity, it was a challenge and I took it.”
Working with a very small team her first year as director, she said they looked through data, discovering African-American students had the highest rate of drop-outs, expulsions and suspensions. They also had the lowest graduation rates out of any other demographic in the district.
“When you have such a large population of, especially students of color, who have not had a relative that have gone to college or sometimes not graduated from high school, they don’t know what to do and how to do it," said Richardson.
Starting there, she said they got to work showing them.
“We would find out which students weren’t attending school, which students were not doing well and just started going to homes, making home visits, going to wherever the kids hung out, finding them and just building connections with them, forming those relationships with them," said Richardson.
She said that meant forming relationships with their parents as well and providing resources that weren't always school-related, like clothes and even transportation.
“We also have those that called and said 'I missed the bus, I can’t come to school,'" said Richardson. "Yeah, we’re coming to get you, honey."
“It’s basically saying I care about you and you can get this done and let’s roll up our sleeves, dig deep and do whatever we need to make this happen," she continued.
And Richardson said it's working.
“This past year, the graduation rates for the African American population increased 19 percent," she said.
COVID-19 has changed the way the team does things, but not the main mission.
“They’re still getting out there, but they know they can’t make any contact, they have to have their mask on, and they have to maintain the physical distancing," she said.
She said, unfortunately, the pandemic has really affected many of the students they work with.
"I can say COVID is causing our marginalized kids to have even more disparity, because they’re dealing with other things in their home, like illnesses, loss of job, poverty," she said. "And a lot of the kids have gone to work because they needed to, because the older family members are not able to work. If they’re sick or if they have those high risk factors, so things are just changing for the home."
"There’s just a lot of needs out there, interfering with the kids and the education they need to get," Richardson continued.
But that hasn't stopped Richardson and her team from working to help them kids succeed.
“I’ve been very fortunate to find the right people who have had similar life experiences as the students that they’re working with, so they can use their personal experience to share with them and let them know, this is what I had to endure, and I overcame and I’ve been successful, so I know you can too," said Richardson.
The Office of Student Equity, Access and Advancement continues to grow and hire more people to help different student groups, including Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and students in Special Ed.