By: Richard Cole and Dave Quall

After a tragic accident that left 17 year old Nicolas with a ruptured vertebra and years of surgery and bed rest, Nicholas lost hope of graduating on time from high school.  Traditional “seat-time” requirements and course offerings do not allow students with nontraditional challenges to succeed.  And, Nicholas is not alone.  Despite the best intentions, school and district leaders hoping to craft individualized pathway for at-risk students face a maze of red tape and bureaucratic hoops, lest they risk jeopardizing state funding.

Despite his health challenges, Nicolas was still able to receive his high school diploma.  He was a participant in Washington’s Open Doors, 1418 Youth Reengagement program. The so-called “1418 programs” allow districts to receive funding based on an individual student’s progress—rather than “seat time.”

Unfortunately, well-intentioned legislation under consideration in Olympia threatens to shut down the 1418 program – denying thousands of students who, like Nicolas, rely on program flexibility to continue working toward graduation.

These students represent the risk and reward of getting education right for young people contending with homelessness, parenting or caring for an ailing family member.  For many, a high school diploma will make the difference between becoming a productive member of our workforce and state or contributing to the millions of dollars that the drop out crisis costs our state each year.

The proposed legislative change to dropout reengagement programs seems intuitive, if not obvious. It would require weekly face-to-face meetings between students and their instructors in order to qualify for alternative learning program funding.  It is designed to address the risk of fraud; eliminate the risk of districts billing the state for “phantom students.”

To be sure, there have been financial abuses in alternative learning programs. But such a requirement for 1418 programs is over-broad. Significantly tighter controls are already in effect, with significant oversight by OSPI.

While the proposal sounds reasonable on paper, this requirement would undermine the very intent of 1418 – and place a diploma just beyond the reach of students like Nicolas, who are physically unable to consistently attend such meetings. Students enrolled in 1418 programs are there because life got in the way of high school and they have commitments that don’t allow them to be in a specific “time and place” each week for school.  It is true that students in these programs still need frequent contact with their instructors, tutors, counselors and case managers. Under this provision, a single doctor’s visit or lack of childcare would jeopardize funding for that student, ultimately causing students to be excluded from the only program that might work for them.

During the many years we have spent working with gang-involved and at-risk youth, we have found their need for flexibility to be a recurring theme. These students live highly disrupted lives. When offered a learning option that accommodates their need for flexibility and support, more than seven out of 10 high school dropouts re-enroll in school. Flexibility is essential for these students to overcome the obstacles in their lives. Successful reengagement programs remove obstacles; we cannot allow this legislation to invent a new one.

Students like Nicolas did not ask for the circumstances life threw at them. He once confided, “I couldn’t have been in school even if I wanted to.” But because a flexible learning program allowed him to work when and where he was able, he kept progressing. “It’s the reason I graduated,” Nicolas said. “So thank you for giving me my hope back.”

The budget provision is being discussed in budget conference early this week. Please contact your legislator to let them know you oppose a change that would prevent thousands of students from earning their high school diploma.

Richard Cole is the superintendent of the Sunnyside School District, where he led the charge to increase district graduation rates by more than 50% since 2007.

Dave Quall was a high school teacher and counselor before serving in the Washington State Legislature for 18 years, including 12 years as chair of the House Education committee; he retired in 2010. He serves on the advisory board for Graduation Alliance, an organization that works with school districts to serve students for whom life obstacles have prevented prior academic success.

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