Monroe cancels college program, leaving more than 150 students stranded

EVERETT — Tate Smith has spent most of the summer waiting to find out if they will get college financial aid this fall. They will not be able to enroll in classes without help.

The 17-year-old, who uses his pronouns, attends Everett Community College under the “U3” youth re-engagement program which helps students earn a free high school diploma and college degree. For more than 20 years, the Monroe School District has covered the student bill. But in April, Smith and nearly 150 other U3 students learned that the program would lose its longtime funding partner on September 1.

“My adviser basically emailed all the students and just said, ‘We’ve lost our funding. Apply for financial assistance. It really sucks,” Smith said.

Two competing narratives have emerged as to why the district ended its partnership. School trustees told U3 students in an email that this was due to Monroe’s school operations tax failure in the February election, but the school district disputes that.

Either way, the end of the partnership leaves dozens of U3 students on the hook this fall as the college scrambles to ‘rethink’ its curriculum and find new partners.

“We are talking to different school districts in the area, trying to form partnerships, so that we can continue to serve students here,” said Rebecca Hungerford, director of the U3 program. “I have every faith that it will happen. It’s just taking longer than expected.

EvCC, Monroe Schools, and the nonprofit Center for Career Alternatives launched U3 in 2000. In the partnership agreement, EvCC provided the tuition, Monroe provides the funding, and the nonprofit – since moving to Sea Mar Community Health Centers – provides employees. The program covered all costs for students, including tuition, fees, books, and other supplies. An average of 100 to 150 students have participated in the program each year, Hungerford said.

In its 2021-22 budget, the district approved nearly $917,000 of its Career and Technical Education Fund to operate U3. It was the most expensive element of this fund. Last year, 156 students enrolled in the program. Of these, 32 lived in the Monroe School District. The others were the program’s “transfer of choice” students, or those who attend a school in Monroe but live outside the district.

Monroe had a similar partnership with Shoreline Community College to operate the Center for Education and Career Opportunities. That partnership is also dissolving at the end of this month, but Shoreline representatives said they were able to find another partner to continue the program with little change for students.

Monroe School District spokeswoman Erin Zacharda said the district’s costs to partner with EvCC would have “significantly increased” this year because a waiver that exempted U3 from certain state requirements ended in the end of the 2021-22 school year. The program had operated with this waiver since 2010, when state lawmakers created Open Doors, a “statewide dropout re-engagement system” that helps students who shouldn’t be graduating from college. high school before age 21 to earn GEDs, diplomas, technical certifications, or college. degrees.

Although similar to U3, Open Doors required higher levels of staff than the local program. The waiver exempted Monroe and EvCC from these requirements.

School officials began talking in November 2021 about “phasing out this outdated curriculum,” Zacharda said. A review found that less than 3% of students completed the U3 program in four years.

“In addition to the waiver expiring, student results have not supported the continuation of the program, and similar programs are available throughout the region,” she wrote. “As a result, in February 2022, the Monroe School Board voted to discontinue the program at the end of the 2021-22 school year.”

Meanwhile, Hungerford cited a survey suggesting the program is effective – looking at the end result, rather than just whether a person has completed the program. Of 97 students who began the 2015-2016 school year, 33 had graduated within five years, 21 had earned an associate’s degree, and 10 had earned a technical certificate. Many U3 students have gone on to higher education or stable careers, she added.

“We have students who would never have seen themselves as college material or who thought they would graduate from high school, and they come here and they succeed,” Hungerford said. “They find the confidence and they fly away.”

This could be anyone from a home-schooled student who has never been to school, or someone caught up in drugs or alcohol, or someone with physical health issues or mental health that kept him from being able to attend regularly, Hungerford said.

“There are so many reasons why a traditional high school environment doesn’t work for a lot of kids,” she said.

Monroe spokeswoman Tamara Krache said high school students still have the option of earning diplomas, GEDs and college degrees through non-traditional routes. Students in Monroe, for example, can enroll in Leaders in Learning High School, the district’s “alternative” school that offers more individual learning plans.

Neighboring school districts offer Open Doors programs. However, only one school district in Snohomish County, Edmonds, operates an Open Doors program supporting college classes. The others provide diplomas or GEDs.

Many high schools also offer “Running Start” programs allowing juniors and seniors to take dual credit courses, much like U3. But Running Start students are not guaranteed to graduate. The program also uses stricter age thresholds, and students still pay personal fees for books and supplies.

U3 served a wider range of students – ages 16 to 21 – and offered direct support in the form of ‘case managers’. Students pay nothing to register.

“Unfortunately many of these (other) options are not necessarily suitable for U3 students – which is why they chose to be in U3 rather than one of these options in the first place,” said Hungerford.

Monroe informed EvCC of her decision in March. A month later, U3 advisers emailed the students.

“We were recently informed that after 21 years of serving students, Monroe has chosen to end this partnership due to the failure of their recent voter education tax,” the email reads. .

Smith, the U3 student, said he was frustrated to read that the future of his college education came down to a community vote. They plan to write Governor Jay Inslee and other state officials to “educate them on what will happen because of the tax denial.”

Hungerford said the district told the college that its decision was motivated by financial reasons, but did not directly cite the levy. This piece was “implicit,” she said.

Zacharda said while the decision saves the district money, it was not a direct result of the tax. The school board voted to discontinue the program on February 14, 2022 – four days before the election results for the failed levy were certified.

“The program would have been eliminated whether or not the levy passed,” Zacharda wrote.

Hungerford is converting U3 into an Open Doors program and she hopes to partner with several local school districts. Already, the Darrington School District is committed and plans to send at least three students, she said. But the rural district cannot accommodate choice transfer students, a key part of the original partnership that allowed U3 to serve so many students, Hungerford said.

“If we don’t have a district willing to accept transfer students by choice, that will mean U3 won’t be an option for many more students,” Hungerford said.

She is also working to get Marysville, Everett, and Lake Stevens as partners, as those cities are where the majority of U3 students live.

“Ideally what I’d like is one of our local districts to step up and say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to partner with you and we’ll take pick transfers as well,'” Hungerford said. “In this way, I would be able to serve any student.”

Smith was looking for ways to continue his college classes in the fall. They have requested financial assistance, but have not yet received a response. They were also considering signing up for Running Start.

“I’m not entirely sure if I can take fall classes,” Smith said. “The problem is getting funding for this, so I may not necessarily get funding in time to be in the fall term.”

Mallory Gruben is a Report for America staff member who writes on education for the Daily Herald.

Mallory Gruben: 425-339-3035; [email protected]; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.

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