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Legislators seeking ways to keep fifth-year program alive


February 2, 2016

A legislative concept that’s on the list for consideration during the Oregon Legislature’s short session, which started Monday, Feb. 1, would formally create a program that Sweet Home School District and other districts in the area have used to send students to community college for several years.

So far under the program, the Sweet Home School District has withheld diplomas for graduates, keeping them on the district’s rolls after graduation. The students, who meet all of the requirements for graduation, instead go on to Linn-Benton Community College, and the district pays their tuition and the cost of books.

Sweet Home School District has increased the number of students going on to college from 19 percent to 55 percent of graduates, according to Kristin Adams, who oversees the program. That is largely because of the support the district has been able to give to its students through the fifth-year program.

Last year, the legislature considered alternatives to the program, including ending it, amidst complaints from representatives of larger urban districts that the program diverts funding from their students.

“If all school districts did this, the system would crash,” said Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, last year.

Ultimately, the legislature put some parameters on the programs but didn’t pass any permanent legislation.

Compared to nothing changing, “this bill (legislative concept 205) would be the next best thing,” said Sweet Home schools Supt. Keith Winslow. “We hope almost that the bill doesn’t pass. If it doesn’t, we likely revert to the way it was.”

The parameters placed on school districts this year would lapse, he said, although the restrictions do place sideboards for the programs, he said. This year, districts cannot allow a sixth year, something Sweet Home has done with some students.

The program cannot grow beyond what it was last school year. The program had about 70 students last year. Winslow, who was the high school principal before he became superintendent last year, estimated that 40 would not have gone to college without the program.

Only districts already providing the program could continue providing it this year.

If the bill fails, then these restrictions would likely disappear, Winslow said, but “there were so many variations to this. It wasn’t consistent.”

Some superintendents feel like it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make the programs consistent, he said. At the same time, what works in one district may not work in another – Scio is different from Central Linn – and they need flexibility to meet the needs of their particular students.

The main crux of the disagreement last year, especially with Hass, was that students who were eligible for financial aid weren’t filling out their financial aid paperwork or pursuing the new Oregon Promise program, which provides free college to qualifying students, Winslow said.

This year’s bill would require students to apply for financial aid and Oregon Promise, Winslow said. It would also exclude those whose families could afford tuition.

The district would be able to continue the program for students who don’t qualify for aid or whose families make too much money, he said. It would apply to low-income students who fall below the 2.5 grade-point average, which is a requirement for financial aid.

They may have messed around their first two years of high school, damaging their GPA, Winslow said. “What are we going to do? Toss them aside?”

Those are the kinds of students the program is actually trying to reach, he said.

“In the past, we have held on to the diplomas,” Winslow said. Under this year’s proposed law, districts could go ahead and award the diplomas, but the districts would still be able to claim them as students and send them to community college.

Over time, the district’s share of the revenue associated with those students would decrease from 100 percent to 75 percent, Winslow said. That should continue to be enough to pay costs and for the program coordinator.

One of the questions superintendents have answered is whether they would continue the program even if they just broke even, Winslow said.

“Everyone of us, absolutely.”

This is about finding “some kind of way to get kids to college that wouldn’t ordinarily go,” Winslow said.

The district is continuing this effort in other ways, as well as supporting alternatives to college for students interested in the trades, like metal shop and construction trades.

The district is working with the Ford Family Foundation to encourage college to youngsters even earlier, implementing a GEAR UP-style program in elementary schools.

The district will work with other districts in the area – Scio, Lebanon and Central Linn, as well as other partners, like LBCC, to prepare students to fill a projected increase in the number of family wage jobs in the area.

“We’re told that over the next five years (there) will be 1,000 jobs created in the Albany area,” Winslow said. They’ll be technical family-wage jobs, and Sweet Home residents already commute. Sweet Home students may want to live here and work at jobs like this in Albany.

The district is looking at a plan with Oregon Freeze Dry that will allow high school students to start working there and then send them to LBCC following graduation, Winslow said. Afterward, they’ll work for higher wages, in the range of $23 per hour, at Oregon Freeze Dry.

“These are things that literally will help our kids to have family-wage jobs and stay in the community if they choose,” Winslow said.

“That’s what this is about.”

The short session runs from Feb. 1 to March 15.


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