Dropouts flood second-chance iGrad school in Kent

Marlon Harris talks with Connie Moriarty, an instructional classroom support technician, left, and GED teacher Karna Cristina, who both worked closely with Harris and helped him earn his GED last year. (Photo by Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Editor’s note:
This is a condensed version of a story published Jan. 13, 2014, in The Seattle Times as part of a yearlong project called The Education Lab. Through a series of stories and a blog, Times reporters are finding and spotlighting promising approaches to problems that have long bedeviled our public school system. The project is produced in partnership with the New York-based Solutions Journalism Network (http://solutionsjournalism.org).

By Claudia Rowe
Seattle Times education reporter

Despite the best intentions of educators, legions of young people detest school, and every year across the country, 1 million such students drop out, fading into virtual anonymity.

Rarely are any described as studious. Yet over the past year and a half, hundreds have filed into an unusual school-completion program in South King County, tucked into a strip mall and designed not to unlock a love of academia, but to help young people earn the credentials necessary for moving on.

No one is forced to attend the free program, which is called iGrad. But as of December, 540 dropouts had enrolled, with more on a waiting list, all drawn by the dawning realization of what it means to navigate adulthood without a diploma.

“I’m scared, man. You can’t even get in McDonald’s without a high school diploma,” said Todd Gauthun, 16, standing outside the iGrad storefront in the city of Kent. He hadn’t seen a classroom in two years.

A partnership between the Kent School District and Green River Community College, iGrad sprung from a new state law that formalizes funding for dropout education. Across the country, a spate of similar re-engagement programs has cropped up, spurred largely by an understanding of how costly such young people can be for society.

But Washington is the first state to tackle the problem through legislation.

More likely to use public assistance — while contributing far less to the tax base — each dropout represents a lifetime taxpayer burden of $258,240 in welfare, criminal justice, and other expenses, according to economists at Columbia University.

To address this, Washington enacted its “Open Doors” law in 2011, funneling existing education dollars — about $5,300 per pupil — to diploma programs that enroll youths 16 to 21, the age at which state obligations to cover schooling end. Since then, two dozen new dropout-recovery programs have popped up in Washington. The first three alone — iGrad and two others — have reconnected more than 1,970 young people with education.

“No other state has tried to take this on at a policy level,” said Andrew Moore, a senior fellow at the National League of Cities, who surveys dropout-recovery efforts nationally. “The total savings from scaled-up dropout re-engagement in Washington could be enormous.”

But dropouts are not easy to track down, let alone entice back to class. In Kent, four school officials phoned every student under 21 who had left the district without a diploma.

There were 2,600.

Each one who arrived at iGrad received a school-completion plan tailored for his age and credit level.

“If you want to get better, you have to get different,” said Kent Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas. “I learned early on that the number one reason people drop out is they think nobody cares.”

Though still in its infancy, iGrad’s 40-percent retention rate is on par with programs in other states. Among the 540 iGrad had enrolled by year’s end, 226 earned diplomas, GED certificates, or moved on to classes at Green River College.

Kids from Oregon, California, Texas, and Alaska have also shown up, asking if they are eligible. (Yes, if they are under 21 and residing in Washington.) Many tell principal Carol Cleveland that she is the first school official who’s ever taken an interest.

“They’re just completely off the radar,” she said. “They’re hearing about iGrad on the street.”

That was the case for Chad Jewett and Marlon Harris, both of whom learned about the program from friends.

For Chad, its most attractive aspect is the lack of resemblance to a traditional school. He works at his own pace, facing a computer screen, rather than a teacher.

“I was pretty skeptical at first,” said his mother, Kim. “But it’s been much more successful than I ever thought. To see a kid go from failing out to wanting to go to a four-year college — that’s just huge. He’ll be the first one in our family.”

Most iGrad students — some of whom are homeless, or parents themselves — need far more case management. Marlon Harris was at first so intimidated that he sat in a corner of the GED-preparation classroom, hoping no one would notice. But Harris’ tutor kept walking by, offering extra coaching as the young man struggled.

“I’m not a man to cry,” he said. “But I actually felt kind of loved in that place.”

On the morning Harris would attempt to pass the GED exam, he panicked. But he remembered his tutor, and how she’d told him to stop second-guessing himself.

This month, Harris began nursing courses at Green River, his GED certificate safely in hand and images of a new future driving him forward. (end)

Link to Education Lab blog: http://blogs.seattletimes.com/educationlab.

Claudia Rowe can be reached at crowe@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2531.

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