Despite the best intentions of educators, the hard fact is that legions of young people detest school.
Every year across the country, 1 million such students drop out, fading into virtual anonymity — most of them unemployed, unaffiliated, unseen.
Of all the words associated with a dropout — failure, poverty, delinquency — studious is rarely among them. Yet each week, dozens of these young people file into iGrad, an unusual school-completion program tucked into a Kent strip mall and designed not to unlock a love of academia but to help students earn the credentials necessary for moving on.
Alternative programs tend to have a rowdy, freewheeling air, but iGrad is almost eerily quiet. There is no joking, jostling, posturing or play. Foster kids, homeless kids, and kids who simply never connected with traditional education march into this classroom sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a Herfy’s and log into online lectures covering the credits they’ve missed — anything from cosines to Contemporary World Issues.
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Each minute they study is tracked, every lesson tested and, when passed, counted toward a diploma. Without typical school distractions, many iGrad students cover an entire course in one month.
No one is forced to attend, yet the 18-month-old program has a waiting list, and its popularity has surged. As of December, 540 young people had enrolled, drawn by the promise of a diploma and the dawning realization of what it means to navigate adulthood without one.
“I’m scared, man. You can’t even get in McDonald’s without a high-school diploma, and I don’t want to be no McDonald’s,” said Todd Gauthun, 16, standing outside the iGrad storefront a few weeks ago, music dribbling from the earphones stashed in his sagging pants pocket.
He hadn’t touched a textbook since leaving Kent-Meridian High two years ago, and the implications of that choice had now become clear.
“I hate school,” he said. “But I pray to God I get into this place.”
A partnership between the Kent School District and Green River Community College, iGrad has its genesis in a new state law that formalizes funding for dropout education. Across the country, a spate of so-called re-engagement programs has cropped up in the past four years, spurred in part by an understanding of how costly such young people can be.
Washington’s state-sanctioned versions are among the newest, and education officials are only now deciphering early results from iGrad and two other programs, searching for insight on how best to serve this difficult population of students.
Nationally, there is little agreement. Some experts believe an accelerated approach like iGrad’s fails to provide the depth that comes from grappling with material in a traditional classroom. Others wonder whether it might be more practical to train these youths for a professional trade.
But this much can be said: Between iGrad and Washington’s other early programs, 1,971 young people who might otherwise have languished instead reconnected with school.
“There isn’t a ton of good research on what works best with these students,” said Sue Furth, graduation specialist at the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Until very recently, no one was looking at them.”
Huge potential savings
State lawmakers noticed when the costs became impossible to ignore.
More likely to use public assistance and engage in crime — while contributing far less to the tax base — each dropout represents a lifetime taxpayer burden of $258,240 in welfare, food stamps, criminal justice, medical and other expenses, according to a recent study published by economists at Columbia University.
Multiply that by 30,000 young dropouts in the Puget Sound area alone and the price tag is staggering.
This impact may be lost on kids like Cuyler Hoover, 17, who despises Kentlake High so much he considered walking away mere months before graduation — until the staff at iGrad said he could finish up there.
“School’s just never been my thing,” he told intake counselor Jennifer Booth. “I have the attention span of a goldfish.”
Or Marlon Harris, 20, who shuttled back and forth between Kent-Meridian and a high school in Cleveland, before finally dropping out in his junior year. Willing to rise at 5 a.m. for a two-hour bus ride to his bakery job in Georgetown, Harris winces at the memory of his undistinguished academic career.
Or Chad Jewett, 17, who studies scripture daily but could not bring himself to turn in homework at Kentwood and was failing half his classes by sophomore year.
“I always start off strong,” he said. “I just get so bored.”
To legislators, the future financial hit represented by disconnected students like these — some $1.6 trillion, nationally, over their lifetimes — was alarming enough that in 2010, Washington became the first state to tackle its dropout problem through law.
Known as “Open Doors,” the legislation uses already existing education dollars — about $5,300 per pupil — to connect disaffected youths age 16 to 21 with diploma and certification programs, an approach that is attracting attention across the country.
“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 from Oregon to Iowa, Nebraska to Massachusetts.
“It’s in localities — Portland, or Boston or Philadelphia. But Washington offers the best current example of a statewide policy. The total savings from scaled-up dropout re-engagement there could be enormous.”
Searching for dropouts
These ex-students are not so easy to track down, however, let alone entice back to class.
Nationally, case workers consider it a victory when a quarter of those dropouts they contact actually show up at credit-recovery programs. And they are looking everywhere — scouring Facebook, hanging around fast-food joints, driving lonely streets.
In Kent, school officials took a different tack, telephoning every student age 16 to 21 who had left the district without a diploma.
There were 2,600.
“It was clear we had a lot of work to do,” said Laura DiZazzo, a former dean at Green River who partnered with the Kent team.
For two weeks, DiZazzo and three others made calls, crossing disconnected numbers off their lists and mailing fliers to last-known addresses.
Each proffered the same invitation: Come back and finish high school — no judgment, no hassles. Do it fast enough, and students could continue, taking classes at Green River until age 21, when the state’s obligation to cover education ends.
Since Open Doors was enacted in 2011, 21 new dropout-recovery programs have popped up around the state, and another five are pending. Some, like the Lake Washington Institute in Kirkland, provide hands-on technical training and an associate degree. Others unite students from rural districts in online-only education.
IGrad falls between these poles, offering a buffet of options, from GED preparation to college access.
“If you want to get better, you have to get different,” said Kent Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas, who has spent much of his 35-year career working with dropouts and refuses to describe them as kids who have failed.
“I think we’ve pushed them out,” he said. “I learned early on that the number one reason people drop out is they think nobody cares.”
Every success is valued
At iGrad, that notion evaporates within the first few minutes of an intake interview.
Counselors scour transcripts, tailoring school completion plans for each youth’s age and credit level. Because funding dries up after they hit 21, most are racing the calendar. Those with too much to make up, and too little time to do it, are turned away.
Past failures are acknowledged, but gently.
“I don’t like to focus too much on that,” said Booth after speaking to a prospective student for more than an hour. “These kids come with so much judgment, so many people looking at them.”
Though iGrad is still in its infancy, its 40 percent retention rate is on par with programs in other states, Kent officials say. As of December 2013, the school had enrolled 540 dropouts, 17 of whom earned Kent School District diplomas. Another eight met state diploma standards, 94 had taken classes at Green River and 127 had earned GED certificates.
“If they had 200 kids and only 20 graduated, I’d still consider it a positive outcome,” said Ted Schwartz, a retired therapist who does volunteer intake work for the program. “It’s money well worth spending.”
Kids who’ve dropped out of schools in Oregon, California, Texas and Alaska have shown up, too, asking if they are eligible. (Answer: Yes, as long as they are under 21 and current residents of Washington.)
Many tell principal Carol Cleveland that she is the first school official who’s 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, Marlon Harris and Cuyler Hoover, each of whom learned about the program from friends or relatives.
For Chad, its most attractive aspect is the utter lack of resemblance to school as he has known it. He works at his own pace, burning through four or five courses per semester, facing a computer screen, rather than a teacher.
“I was pretty skeptical at first,” said his mother, Kim Jewett. “I didn’t think Chad would be responsible enough to sit and look at a computer for three hours at a time. 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 a good deal more case management. Cleveland sometimes takes them grocery shopping, suggesting that buying four cans of soda is perhaps not the best use for $10 of food money.
She exudes a serene but firm authority, telling students who fail to show up for class that they could be dumped — innumerable others are waiting to take their seats. The stack of waiting-list files on her desk never shrinks.
Marlon Harris, shaken by two failed attempts to earn a GED in Ohio, was so intimidated by iGrad that at first he sat as far as possible from anyone else in the classroom. He didn’t want anyone, least of all a teacher, to notice him. The only thing driving Harris through the door was the memory of his mother raising three sons on a fast-food salary.
But Harris’ GED tutor, Connie Moriarty, didn’t know anything about that. She kept walking by his desk, offering extra coaching as the young man struggled with math.
“I was kind of shocked by that,” he said. “I never had anything like that in Cleveland.”
Soon, Harris was pulling his chair right next to Moriarty.
“I’m not a man to cry,” he said, tearing up in an interview. “But I actually felt kind of loved in that place.”
On the morning Harris would make his third attempt to pass the GED test, he downed two cans of Red Bull and panicked. He stared at the word problems and thought of his tutor, how she’d told him to breathe, believe and stop second-guessing himself.
A week later, she texted him at work. The results had come in.
“Did I pass?” he typed into his phone, standing next to a sinkful of dishes at Alki Bakery.
“You’re sure you want to know?”
Harris began to sweat. “Yes, I want to know.”
The memory of that moment is a watershed for him. He tells the story over and over, as one of the defining moments of his life.
“When she told me I passed, I forgot I was at work,” he said. “I just jumped and shouted. And when I got the envelope a few days later and saw that paper in my hands, I couldn’t believe it. I never thought I could make my mother proud. But I did.”
One week ago, Harris arrived for his first course in a nursing program at Green River. He peered at the campus map and up at the tall buildings, images of a college classroom driving him forward.
Claudia Rowe: email@example.com or 206-464-2531