Some 15,000 King County youths are living in dropout limbo -- adrift, unemployed and largely unemployable. The new project hopes to reconnect them to a future of possibilities.

Share story

Carol Cleveland has launched 326 high school dropouts on a path to graduation. With a big boost from the United Way, she’s likely to launch many, many more.

Cleveland is principal of iGrad, an unusual school completion program tucked into a Kent strip mall. Organizations like hers will be the beneficiaries of the United Way’s new “Reconnecting Youth Project,” which aims to help 5,000 dropouts achieve high school equivalency degrees.

The new project was unveiled at United Way’s annual fall fundraising breakfast, attended by about 600 people last week in a crowded Paramount Theater.

“King County has about 15,000 young people in their late teens to early twenties who don’t have high school degrees, who aren’t in school and who aren’t working,” said Dr. Ben Danielson, a United Way board member who spoke at the breakfast. “In other words, they’re disconnected.”

One third of them have experienced homelessness, one in three have had contact with the child welfare system, and two thirds are already parents, Danielson said. Sixty percent are people of color.

And Washington’s high school graduation rate ranks a dismal 42nd in the nation, Danielson said.

“These numbers don’t match the vision I have of our community or who we are or what we stand for,” he said. “All youth should graduate from high school. All disconnected youth deserve a path to get reconnected.”

The United Way estimates that it will cost $8,900 to help each eligible student attain a high school equivalency degree. For each one who does, the state will pick up more than half the tab under the terms of its “Open Doors” law, passed in 2010.

The legislation uses existing education dollars — about $5,300 per pupil — to connect disaffected youths age 16 to 23 with diploma and certification programs.

The United Way intends to pick up the balance for 5,000 kids by 2020. To do so, it plans to raise $10 million this year and at least $20 million by 2020. Early donations from Boeing, Microsoft, Wells-Fargo, Nordstrom, Costco, Weyerhaeuser and others have already brought in $3.8 million.

The campaign will support organizations such as Safe Futures, Youth Source, Seattle Education Access and iGrad. And it will link them with a network of community colleges and other regional educational and social service organizations that can offer appropriate support.

iGrad, which currently has 430 students, opened in June, 2012. Since then, Cleveland said, 326 students have moved on from the program to receive degrees, diplomas or certificates.

They work at their own pace, on their own schedule, with close supervision from iGrad mentors. Many of them earn simultaneous credit at Green River Community College, an iGrad partner, and go on to earn associate degrees.

Reconnecting Youth will pair students with mentors and coaches who can offer them one-to-one support in finding the most suitable high school degree programs and planning for their post-graduation lives. They will help them navigate challenges such as transportation, employment and college applications.

“To meet the needs of these students and to successfully prepare them for the future takes a community,” Cleveland said.