All this week, NPR is digging into high school graduation rates. Oregon has the lowest grad rate of any state - of less than 69 percent in 2013. Oregon's long-term plan to improve graduation rates starts really early - with preschoolers.
With the help of a family in OPB's "Class of 2025" project, Rob Manning looks at the difference preschool can make.
After school on a hot spring day, Roy is playing with his older brother Dude. They're running around the playground at Earl Boyles Elementary School in East Portland. Their shirts are off and their long blonde hair flies behind them as they run.
"They're just boys being boys together. It's nice. Really nice."
That's their mom Debra Rabedeau.
There's no mistaking they're brothers. But they have their differences. For instance, five year-old Roy spends three hours a day at the new Earl Boyles preschool. There was no free preschool, when Dude was five.
Debra Rabedeau: "I think there's a difference there for sure. In my opinion, it's pretty clear that Dude didn't have that preschool experience."
Rabedeau sees what missing out on preschool means for her older son.
Rabedeau: Partially because of his social skills, and partially because of his interest in learning. And Roy is a social guy, at the same time, he's very independent, and he's very interested in learning."
Adarkar: "What you know from the research is that kids who are in high-quality preschool - particularly low-income kids - are far more likely to graduate from high school---"
Swati Adarkar is with the Portland-based Children's Institute.
Adarkar: "They're far more likely to go on to college, they're far more likely not to need special education as they go on in the elementary grades - these are all huge game-changers."
Researchers say one thing preschool does, is build a foundation for literacy. Oregon students who are strong readers by 3rd grade graduate 77 percent of time. If they're not? The Oregon grad rate is 53 percent.
Five year-old Roy sits on the preschool room carpet, drawing and spelling out the letters in "snake." He picks up a yellow marker.
Roy: "I'm going to color the snake in, but not the face."
Rob: "Are you going to color him in yellow?"
Roy: "Yellow is my favorite color."
Earl Boyles Elementary has six preschool sections. Kids listen to stories, play games, recite letters and numbers. They have music down the hall...
... and spend a while on the playground...
Teacher Katie Herro says the preschoolers are constantly learning social skills.
Katie Herro: "To follow routines, to get along with other kids, and solve social problems I think is the main one - because if you can't do that, you're not going to be able to sit down and write next to another child, or interact with other kids."
Roy joins his classmate Jocelyn at a table. There's play-doh, and plastic knives and rollers.
Roy: "Can I play with that one?"
Jocelyn: "We can take turns."
Around the corner from the preschool wing is a room dedicated to helping struggling readers. Second graders occupy every seat - including Roy's older brother Dude. Reading specialist Theresa DeMars leans in to hear Dude's quiet voice, as she shows him word flash cards.
Theresa DeMars: "Three, good."
Dude: "Small. Such."
If you look at how many kids need help with reading, it's clear preschool is making a difference. Lindsay DiFazio is a reading teacher who helps struggling readers.
DiFazio: "Our second grade classroom is completely full and they're staying there. They're making slow but steady growth."
But it's a different story for Earl Boyles' kindergarteners. Many of them were part of a preschool pilot, last year.
DiFazio: "Our kindergarteners, because they've had those foundational skills presented - are picking them up, much more rapidly."
And DiFazio's reading room, when it's kindergarten time? Less than half-full. Dude's brother Roy enters kindergarten next year, along with Earl Boyles' largest preschool class so far.
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