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Initiative campaign aims to raise graduation rates

$800 per student would fund dropout prevention, tech skills

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A Benson Polytechnic High School student works in a shop class. Career-technical education is widely seen to be Benson Techs major advantage in graduating a wide demographic of students at similar rates. Book learning is not for everyone.

Career-technical education is the new term for an old idea: teach kids how to make or fix stuff.

And, advocates say, if you do, they are much more likely to be engaged in school, better prepared for college, and have lifelong access to better pay.

But career-technical education, often called CTE, also is expensive, requiring industrial equipment and advanced technology.

A coalition of education advocates is gearing up for a $3 million campaign to get an initiative on the ballot that would dedicate $800 for every Oregon high school student. In a bid to raise the state’s graduation rate, the money would be earmarked for CTE, dropout prevention strategies, and college-level courses in high schools.

“Too many of our kids are falling off a cliff after eighth grade,” says Latino Network of Oregon Executive Director Carmen Rubio, noting that Oregon kids have some of the highest test scores in the nation, but some of the lowest graduation rates.

Stand for Children Oregon, the Latino Network, the Coalition of Communities of Color and former Gov. Ted Kulongoski are behind the initiative petition campaign called Oregonians for High School Success.

At press time, the initiative petition was still mired in court battles over the ballot title, the language that would appear before voters.

Chuck Bennett, a lobbyist with the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, says without that ballot title, the measure is still half-baked and it’s going to be tough to get the necessary signatures and endorsements by the July deadline.

“It feels really unvetted,” Bennett says. “We need to know what its title is and what it does.”

Earmark or wise investment?

If the initiative gets enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot, voters would decide if their plan is the right one.

The Initiative Petition 65 campaign would skim off an estimated 15 percent of the new revenues coming in during the next biennium for a total of $282 million, says Tim Nesbitt, the former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO labor federation, who currently is consulting on this campaign.

The money question already has generated criticism from one of the state’s biggest unions, the Service Employees International Union, that it would take away needed funding from other government services.

Bennett says that schools will need an additional $1 billion next biennium to maintain the same level of service — to cover inflation, raises and other costs that go up every year. “There’s more to it than: ‘There’s a surplus, let’s spend it on this, our favorite idea.’ ”

Bennett says the pie isn’t getting larger; initiative advocates are just taking away local control from school boards to make allocation decisions.

“This is a closed system,” he says. “They’re not introducing new money.”

Nesbitt brushes off the criticism.

“There’s always tension about anything new when the conventional wisdom is ‘we don’t have enough to do what we’re doing now,’ ” Nesbitt says, arguing that, sometimes, “the new investments turn out to be the wisest.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Carmen Rubio, executive director of the Latino Network of Oregon, and Tim Nesbitt, who is working with Stand for Children, are championing an initiative campaign to provide money for vocational education, dropout prevention programs.

CTE students graduate more often

Last year, Oregon recorded the highest dropout rate in more than a decade, at 4.26 percent. However, because the state’s methodology has changed over the years, it is difficult to compare historical data. The state’s data tops out at 7.4 percent in 1994-95 school year.

Last year, Multnomah County’s dropout rate was 4.15 percent.

Many other students are failing out of high school.

The statewide completion rate — which allows for a fifth year of high school and other alternative graduates — was at 81.4 percent, meaning 18.6 percent simply didn’t make it.

But even when kids graduate high school, many are still not college-ready. A May 2015 study from the Education Northwest think tank found nearly three-fourths of recent high school graduates taking community college courses in Oregon had to pay for noncredit-bearing remedial courses.

This changes dramatically when CTE courses are added to the mix. Data from the Oregon Department of Education’s OregonCTE.com website shows that the four-year graduation rate for students who have earned at least one credit of CTE is 15.5 percentage points higher than the statewide average.

The difference is even more dramatic for populations that schools traditionally have a hard time connecting with. The graduation rate for black or African-American students who have taken CTE was 23.8 percentage points higher than the average for all black students; the rate for Native American students was 21.3 percentage points higher than their average.

Same is true for PPS

Portland Public Schools has been gaining ground recently in graduation rates. But nowhere is their success more apparent than in those who have taken at least two CTE courses.

During the 2013-14 school year, the districtwide graduation rate was 72 percent. Those who had completed two courses of CTE? Ninety-one percent.

Demographic groups that typically struggle suddenly have very similar graduation rates to the majority when they are allowed more hands-on learning. African-American CTE students had an 87 percent graduation rate; Native American CTE students, 80 percent and Hispanic CTE students, 93 percent.

Jon Isaacs, a spokesman for the district, says the administration hasn’t reviewed the details of the measure and cannot take a position on it, but that the district shares the strategy on focusing on CTE to improve graduation rates.

“This is definitely one of the strategies for keeping it headed in an upward trajectory, and for closing the achievement gap,” Isaacs says. “They’re asking the right questions, and they’re focusing on the right things, for sure.”

Jeanne Yerkovich, who heads the district’s CTE and Career Pathways programs, says the district already has expanded its CTE offerings with more than $1 million in new investments in the past two years. This has allowed the number of CTE programs at PPS to balloon from 19 to more than 50 in just two years and to triple the number of CTE teachers, she says.

“We’ve expanded significantly,” Yerkovich says, adding: “CTE programs are ... expensive.”

But also effective.

“Kids are more engaged and they see the application” in a CTE class, she says. “They may sit in a geometry class and not really understand, but then when they learn the concept and then go to apply it, it clicks.”

Restoring pathways

The $800 per high school kid would be used at the district’s discretion in three program types: career-technical education, dropout prevention and college-level courses.

Nesbitt says that during the recession, many of these programs were considered “extras” and were cut.

“It seems like the time has come to restore and update all of these multiple pathways,” he says.

Rubio argues that superintendents across Oregon also have shifted focus to younger grades, kindergarten through eighth grade. “It seems to us to be quite timely” to recalibrate the focus on high school, she says.

The Latino Network has worked on projects like Ninth Grade Counts, a summer school program in select schools that teaches academic and social skills.

But Rubio says that while successful, the programs have only been pilots with limited funding and no clear vision about how to expand them.

“It’s really difficult: Which school do we pick?” Rubio says. “We need to bring it to scale so that we’re not just picking one place when the need is really so widespread.”

“High school is the last best chance for our kids,” Nesbitt says. “It’s not as if a high school dropout can’t recover, but it’s much harder.”

What Initiative 65 would do:

The High School Graduation and Career and College Readiness Act would, beginning in 2017-18, give districts at least $800 per high school student. The money could only be spent to expand or establish:

  • Career-technical education programs
  • College-level courses, including Advanced Placement courses, co-enrollment, or hiring teachers to provide college-level courses
  • Dropout-prevention programs, including tracking at-risk kids beginning in eighth grade
  • The funds couldn’t be used to backfill — to fund programs that are currently funded — except those with expired grant funding.

    The measure also would direct the Oregon Department of Education to track rates of college attendance and the need for remedial classes for those who attend, as well as other performance and financial accountability audits.

    What career-technical eduation is:

    There are state and federal requirements for a CTE program.

  • A teacher with a CTE certification
  • Alignment to a community college system
  • Advisory committee with members from the industry
  • Student skills testing
  • Other requirements
  • Approved programs are funded through the federal Carl Perkins grant.

    “Over the last 10 years, in terms of investment, we have relied heavily on the Perkins grant,” says Jeanne Yerkovich, head of CTE at Portland Public Schools. “With the district paying, obviously teacher salaries, but no additional investment from the district, until last year when ... over $1 million was invested.”

    Yerkovich says the district has occasionally received one-time state grants, but nothing she can count on.

    “Being able to know that we have firm dollars to invest in these programs and to expand programs and to start programs, it makes it easier to be intentional,” she says, declining to state a specific position on the Stand for Children initiative. “I think that having funds that we can count on would be a great way of moving it forward.”

    Shasta Kearns Moore
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