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Legislators may end fifth-year programs

from the Albany Democrat-Herald

SALEM — Students and administrators from school districts across the state were among nearly 30 people who last week urged Oregon lawmakers to keep fifth-year high school programs, similar to one used by a Medford charter school.

Amendments have been suggested to Senate Bill 322, that would phase out fifth-year programs in the next two years. Educators urged senators to instead consider expanding them, possibly by reconsidering other bills that would direct funding for new initiatives.

Students who participate in fifth-year programs first meet all the requirements to graduate from their local high school, but put off receiving their diploma while spending a fifth year taking college classes.

Because the students still are considered part of their hometown districts until they formally graduate, districts use state K-12 school funds to cover their tuition and fees at the community college. Coordinators at both sites meet regularly with the students to help them plan and keep them on track.

In Jackson County, Logos Charter School planned to use the program to pay for the higher-ed costs of about 40 students. The school would have allocated $6,846 for each fifth-year student, all but about $300 coming from state K-12 funding.

SB 322 initially would have provided a funding structure for the programs, albeit at a reduced payment rate.

But Sen. Mark Hass of Beaverton, a member of the education committee, said he and other lawmakers support the amendments that would end them entirely. They say the programs exploit a "loophole" in state funding, that K-12 dollars shouldn't be used to support college classes at the expense of crowded elementary classrooms and other needs, and that larger districts can't participate for fear of bankrupting the system.

The Oregon Department of Education knows of 26 districts with fifth-year programs and estimates their cost to the K-12 budget at about $9.5 million per year.

Student after student last week urged the senators to keep the programs, saying they provide a critical support system, especially for low-income, first-generation college students.

Hass asked Anthony Ross, student body president for South Albany, whether Ross thought it was appropriate to use K-12 money for college.

"Senator, you're well aware of the saying, 'You have to spend money to make money,'" Ross replied. "Yes, it will hurt, at first. Down the road, you will see enormous benefits from this program."

Corvallis Superintendent Erin Prince said her district's graduation rate jumped nearly 20 percent in two years, to 84 percent, after beginning a fifth-year program.

"We understand the funding model needs to look different," she said, "but don't cut the programs that are successful."

Kristin Adams, who coordinates Sweet Home's fifth-year program, asked senators to reconsider the "fairness" angle.

Portland may be worried about crowding in its 33 elementary schools, Adams acknowledged. However, she said, each of those 33 schools already offers a P.E. specialist, a music teacher, a counselor, a speech pathologist, a technology instructor and someone to teach English as a second language — all resources Sweet Home lacks.

Beaverton offers Advanced Placement class in 11 subjects, she added, while Sweet Home has just two. "I don't feel like I'm robbing the K-12 budget," she said. "I feel like I'm leveling the playing field."