Some high schools omitted; study also left out alternative programs

Missing from the recent report on graduation rates in Oregon are the foster kids, teen parents, homeless youth and others who earn GEDs from Portland's wide array of alternative education programs.

Leaders of the programs say that of the 200,606 students served every year, 81 percent go on to hold down jobs, attend college or return to high school. If not for the programs, many would simply be high-school dropouts.

Portland, in fact, has become known nationally for its network of 23 alternative education programs, which grew in part because of Portland Public Schools' explicit mandate to recover out-of-school youth.

The American Youth Policy Forum features Portland's offerings in a study called 'Whatever It Takes: How 12 Communities Are Reconnecting Out-of-School Youth.'

So why were the alternative education programs dissed in a recent report called 'Diplomas Count'?

The report, published by a Bethesda, Md.-based nonprofit organization called Editorial Projects in Education, caused a stir locally after saying that Oregon's graduation rate among blacks is 25 percent, the lowest in the nation and far behind the national rate of 52 percent.

Christopher Swanson directed research for the report. 'The student who leaves the regular high school to go into adult education or GED programs is effectively a dropout,' he explained.

'Where you want these students is regular school that leads to a diploma,' Swanson added. 'A GED is not equivalent to a diploma. In the labor market it doesn't signal a student has gotten a full high school education. If you're assigning these students to alternative programs, they're going to be at a disadvantage.'

Brian Reeder, assistant superintendent at the state Department of Education, strongly disagreed, saying Swanson's reasoning runs contrary to the way the state has considered the programs for the past several years.

Some of the programs are Youth Employment Institute, Pathfinder Academy, Portland YouthBuilders and Open Meadow Alternative Schools.

If the report included those students in alternative education programs - 20 percent of whom are black - the graduation rate would be much higher, he said.

Many students go uncounted

But that wasn't the only problem Reeder found with the report. He had himself to blame for numbers that the state submitted incorrectly to the federal government.

'It seems that in the data that we submitted to the feds for the 2003-04 school year, we showed Jefferson, Marshall and Roosevelt high schools in Portland as already closed when, in fact, they did not close until the following year - 2004-05,' Reeder wrote in an e-mail. Those students were not counted at all.

Jefferson, Marshall and Roosevelt high schools, whose minority enrollments are among the largest in both the city and the state, were converting to small-schools formats during the year 2003-04. The true, revised rate for blacks is 57 percent for the state, Reeder said.

The lower numbers that were published do not affect education funding but do have an impact on the public's perceptions of Oregon's education system, he said.

'Anytime the state releases incorrect information, it damages credibility, sure,' said Gene Evans, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Education.

'Unfortunately, the error became the focus of attention, instead of the much more important fact that we have a great deal of work to do to ensure that all students finish high school with a regular diploma,' he said.

For some, answer is college

Portland students are offered a portfolio of options, said Linda Huddle, director of alternative programs at Portland Community College. The college offers three programs - one leads to a GED, one serves students learning English and one helps students complete high school while gaining college credits.

'At PCC, students say they don't like the drama of high school; they didn't fit in,' she said. 'This is more of an adult learning environment, with more expected of them in terms of responsibility. Other students may need more wraparound support - counseling, advising, encouraging, mentoring. Some may respond better to a learning environment that's smaller, structured, self-contained. Some may respond better to work-based experience.

'And then there are GED programs that also have child-development centers because they're teen parents. In order to encourage young people to stay in school, there needs to be a lot of options.'

That said, the GEDs should be included in national reports on graduation, she insisted, saying, 'Otherwise why offer this as an opportunity for students? It's kind of devaluing a credential that took a lot of effort for some students to achieve. I think that would be sending the wrong message.'

Carole Smith, director of education options for Portland Public Schools, had a slightly different perspective: '(The GED) is a worthwhile thing to have as an option for kids. It's what will let you enter the next level of education. I would not advocate for a GED to be an end credential.'

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