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College on the K-12 dime

Logos Public Charter School in Medford and about two dozen other public schools statewide are taking advantage of some ambiguity in the law that allows students to delay graduating to attend one or even two years of college on the state’s dime.

This year, more than 1,100 Oregon high school students — a conservative estimate — will attend community college full-time for free under their districts’ advanced diploma or fifth-year programs.

These students have met all their high school requirements and perhaps even walked with their four-year cohort at graduation. However, they are waiting to receive their diploma until the end of their fifth year so their school can collect state funding and apply it to their college tuition, fees and books.

Under Oregon law, public school students can earn college credits while still in high school (ORS 340.310) and may continue with their high school until they are 19 years old — or 21 if they are special education students — so long as they are pursuing a high school diploma (ORS 339.115).

Those implementing the program maintain that if it's legal and benefits kids, why not make it available?

According to participating districts, the program provides a seamless transition into college with academic support from both high school and college advisers and makes college accessible for students who might not have been able to afford it. And it advances Gov. John Kitzhaber’s “40-40-20” goal, in which 40 percent of adult Oregonians would hold at least a bachelor's degree, 40 percent would hold an associate degree or post-secondary certificate, and the remaining 20 percent would hold a high school diploma or equivalent by 2025.

But some educators and legislators argue that, while the program is beneficial to some students, it dilutes the K-12 budget, reducing the resources available to others. The more students enrolled in the K-12 system — and currently there are about 540,000 — the less everyone gets of the $6.65 billion available this biennium in the state school fund, said Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, co-chairman of the Joint Ways and Means Committee and chairman of the state's Task Force on School Funding.

The task force and the Oregon Education Investment Board have urged legislators to examine the practice of retaining students for a fifth year and using K-12 funds to finance their college education. The topic will be addressed in the 2015 Oregon Legislative session, which begins Feb. 2.

“The people doing this are sincere in their efforts, and some are desperate for ways to help their students,” Devlin said. “But then again, if you are diminishing the resources that a third-grade student out there has, then is it good or bad?”

A small handful of districts began offering an advanced diploma program more than a decade ago. However, the program became even more attractive to districts last year when the state decided to count students who had completed all their high school requirements — even if they hadn't been awarded their diploma — in their school’s four-year graduation rate.

Last week, 15 Oregon school districts confirmed they were offering an advanced diploma or a similar program in at least one of their high schools.

Logos Public Charter announced in December that it also wanted to make this opportunity available to its students and identified about 40 seniors who are eligible to apply for an advanced diploma. Students who participate will be designated as “Voyagers.”

Logos Executive Director Joseph VonDoloski said the school will begin implementing the program pending the Logos School Board’s decision at Monday's meeting.

“We could debate educational funding, but bottom line, for everything that’s not available to us, this funding is available so I’m going to take it,” said VonDoloski. “I play on the field and with the rules that are set for me.”

The state’s 2014-15 allocation is $6,888 per high school student enrolled in a public charter school. The Medford School District retains 5 percent of that and passes along the rest — about $6,544 — to Logos.

VonDoloski estimates that tuition, fees and books for three terms and the necessary Logos staffing will cost the school about $6,846 per student.

The school will pick up the $302 difference — a $12,080 commitment for 40 students.

“For about $13,000 of our budget, we can send 40 kids to college full-time,” VonDoloski said.

Logos students in pursuit of an advanced diploma will be expected to attend Rogue Community College and/or Southern Oregon University full-time for three consecutive terms. They also will be required to maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average and pay for any specialized class materials and supplies.

Logos senior Jasmine Serabia, 17, already has earned 52 college credits through dual-credit classes. By going for an advanced rather than regular diploma, Serabia will complete her fifth year of high school with an Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer Degree, as well as her Emergency Medical Technician certificate.

"I'll get a head start on my medical career, and I'll be equipped to have a job at 18 in the medical field," Serabia said, adding that a full ride will allow her to begin saving now for medical school.

Students without a diploma can attend RCC but are not admitted, explained Daniella Bivens, the college’s director of educational partnerships.

“However, they will be participating at the same level and earning the same credits,” she said.

High school students already can earn dual credit through RCC’s College Now program — free dual-credit classes taught by approved high school teachers on the high school campus — and Extended Options or Early College programs — RCC classes taught by RCC faulty on RCC’s campus because they’re not available at the high school.

“At least 31 percent of students in the Rogue Valley are not pursuing any college after high school,” Bivens said. “Some may come back in their late 20s or 30s, but one way or another, there is (government) funding going to them. And as a taxpaying citizen, I would rather see them be successful younger.”

In the Lake County, Klamath County and Klamath City school districts, students apply for an advanced diploma, write an essay and must show they are committed to the program, said Julie Murray-Jensen, Klamath Community College’s vice president of external programs.

“And they can be removed from the program if they aren't going to class or aren't successful academically,” she said.

There were 163 students attending KCC last year as part of an advanced diploma program, and about 70 percent completed that fifth year with the college. Some have since transferred to other colleges, some started jobs and about 30 percent returned to KCC for a second year, Murray-Jensen said, adding that, from her perspective, the program has been “an overwhelming success.”

“It can give students and families post-secondary training that leads to a living wage,” she said.

Last year, 38 students in the Corvallis School District participated in the program, which the district calls Running Start, and this year, there were 110 students.

“Kids who would never have gone to college before are able to,” said Eric Wright, the district’s alternative pathways coordinator. “And the freshman success rate is so much better than the typical college freshman success rate because they have an adult supporting them, helping them choose appropriate classes that are part of their academic program, holding them accountable for attendance and academic success and prescribing interventions as necessary.”

But as more and bigger districts begin offering an advanced diploma, the more K-12 money is being diverted to cover it, said Michael Wiltfong, director of school finance for the Oregon Department of Education.

“If 1,000 students are taking advantage of it, that’s about $7 million,” he said.

And some districts, such as Lebanon Community Schools and the Dallas School District, make the option available for six years so kids graduate from high school with an Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degree.

Currently, ODE can provide only rough estimates as to the number of students and districts participating in the program, so the governor tasked the Oregon Education Investment Board with collecting more exact data, evaluating the outcomes of the program and crafting a solution that would be financially feasible, said Hilda Rosselli, OEIB’s director of college and career readiness.

“We understand there are benefits that the model seeks to provide, but we also recognize some unintended consequences,” Rosselli said.

For example, the program is not targeting students “for whom college affordability is the biggest barrier,” she said.

“For us, we are very interested in systematically looking at how we can help districts implement earlier systems of helping students determine their college and career readiness and the benefits of taking college credits in high school without delaying high school graduation,” she said.

In December, Rosselli accompanied Oregon schools Deputy Superintendent Rob Saxton, Sen. Doug Whitsett and several educators, including Medford schools Superintendent Brian Shumate and Southern Oregon Education Service District Superintendent Scott Perry, to look at a highly successful model implemented by the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District in Texas.

Rosselli said she would like to see schools establish career pathways for students as early as the eighth grade to create a younger college-going culture.

Fixing the current situation is not as simple as rewriting the law, Devlin said.

“These are students who have enough hours to graduate and met the requirements but are not actually graduating,” Devlin said. “If we said you can’t hold a student back, then an administrator could simply prevent them from completing all their requirements so they can participate in this. There’s a lot of creativity out there.”

But one thing is for sure, the state can’t afford to fund advanced diplomas under the current system without “decreasing the amount going to every other student in every other school district in the state,” Devlin said.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said he supported creating additional opportunities and incentives for students to pick up college credit in high school.

“I can’t blame high schools — especially given the reduced budgets we've had for the last six or seven years — for wanting to encourage students to stick around and pursue college. We’re all trying to get to the same place … where students have the same opportunities to thrive. But we have to make sure it works for the greatest number of students possible.”

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

Luana Bolinger, 53, works with Jasmine Serabia, 17, as a lab partner in biology 211 at Rogue Community College Wednesday. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell
Jasmine Serabia, 17, a student at Logos Public Charter School in Medford, attends her first lab Wednesday in Rogue Community College's Biology 211 class. She plans to enroll in Logos' advanced diploma program. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell