Bethel schools launch program aimed at increasing graduation rate

High school dropouts in the Bethel School District will soon have a way to earn their diplomas without stepping foot in a public school.

The Bethel Acceleration Academy will open Monday for former students and current students who are not on track to complete their diploma by their 21st birthday, the deadline for receiving a public education.

“The goal here is to offer a different program here for students that have dropped out,” said Jennifer Bethman, Bethel’s assistant superintendent for secondary schools.

Atlantic Education Partners is the for-profit education provider that will run the new program with oversight from the School District.

About 50 students have signed up to take courses in what will be the first operation in the state for the Chicago-based company, said Frank Walton, Atlantic’s regional vice president.

Bethel administrators are tapping into state money set aside to carry out House Bill 1418, which aimed to give former students an alternative route to a diploma.

Most of the 53 Washington districts that run HB 1418 programs collaborate with educational service districts to run the program, and news that Bethel has opted to go with a private company has sparked concerns.

Bob Shafer, president of the Bethel Education Association, said the teachers union is looking into whether the contract violates the district’s agreement with the union.

The Federal Way School District is also considering contracting with Atlantic Education Partners. The School Board was set to vote on the program this week, but delayed to gather more information about the dropout program and Atlantic before moving forward, said Carol Gregory, School Board president.

Thirteen other districts around the state are contracting with another for-profit, The American Academy.

In Bethel’s case, the new program will follow a blended curriculum that combines classroom instruction with online learning, Walton said.

Each student will be given an Amazon Kindle to work online outside of the classroom and free broadband Internet access to complete their schoolwork at home.

Walton said students must complete the first 20 percent of the program at the center and show they are making progress in their courses before being allowed to work outside of the center.

The center is located in a strip mall on Pacific Avenue in Spanaway and will be open at least 12 hours a day to increase accessibility and accommodate students’ busy schedules, he said.

Walton said students will receive additional support while in the program, including access to a guidance counselor, a career plan based on their skills and interests, and an individual student plan to help them reach their diploma.

“There is not going to be a one-size-fits-all,” Walton said.

Students will work towards a high school diploma, not a GED, which Walton said some employers and job training programs will not accept.

District officials say the program gives former students a chance to return to school and complete their education while helping the School District boost its graduation rates.

“They just became disenfranchised with high school,” Bethman said. “This is a program that allows them to come back.”

Hannah Merritt is one of those students.

With a 2-year-old daughter and another child on the way, the 18-year-old mom said the new program will allow her to work and take care of her children while getting her high school diploma.

“It’s, like, perfect. It’s more than I could really ask for,” she said. “I can’t wait to get started and finish school.”

Merritt said she attended an alternative high school and took part in an online program, but felt she was not getting enough individualized instruction. She said Bethel’s program will offer her a quick route toward a high school diploma and allow her to move on to the next stage of her life.

Atlantic will not use Bethel School District teachers, but will instead be hiring their own instructors to be approved by the district. All instructors will have a state teaching license and meet all state and federal qualifications.

Shafer, the Bethel teachers union president, didn’t learn of the district’s contract with Atlantic Education Partners until The News Tribune contacted him. The state and local teachers union will be looking into the company’s hiring and compensation policies, he said.

“I’m disappointed that (district officials) didn’t talk to us about it,” he said.

Although the contract signed with the School District earlier this year allows the company to accept only 100 students, the company hopes the district will reevaluate the cap if the program is successful, Walton said.

The state will pay the for-profit on a per-student basis, and could pay up to $544,850 if the company reaches the cap. The School District will keep 7 percent of the state funds as administrative costs for providing the for-profit with information about students who have lost contact with the district.

State Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Shoreline, is wary about districts hiring for-profit companies to reach dropouts. She was the sponsor of the legislation that created the reengagement programs.

“It think it has to be very carefully done,” she said. “I’m concerned, seeing the abuse that has occurred in higher education.”

She said the intent of the bill was to allow community colleges, educational service districts and community based nonprofits to run the re-engagement programs.

“I certainly don’t think an entity based out of Chicago is communit- based,” she said.

Kagi said she hopes the districts will provide close oversight over the private models and pay close attention to the results.

In response to Kagi’s concerns, Bethman said the district already offers a public alternative high school for dropouts. The new program is meant to provide Bethel students with another way to achieve a high school diploma.

“Our job is to provide as many opportunities for those kids,” Bethman said.

Atlantic Education Partners President Bart Anderson said the company plans to begin programs in Washington, Florida and North Carolina this summer and fall.