EVERETT — Tate Smith has spent most of the summer waiting to hear whether they will get financial aid for college this fall. They won’t be able to enroll in classes without help.
The 17-year-old, who uses they/them pronouns, attends Everett Community College through the “U3” Youth Re-engagement Program that helps students earn a high school diploma and college degree for free. For more than 20 years, the Monroe School District covered the bill for students. But in April, Smith and nearly 150 other U3 students learned the program would lose its longtime funding partner on Sept. 1.
“My advisor basically sent an email to all of the students and just said, ‘We lost our funding. Apply for financial aid. This really sucks,’” Smith said.
Two competing narratives emerged for why the district discontinued its partnership. School advisors told U3 students in an email it was due to the Monroe school operations levy failure in the February election, but the school district disputes that.
Either way, the end of the partnership leaves dozens of U3 students in the lurch this fall as the college scrambles to “redesign” its program and find new partners.
“We are in the process of talking to different school districts in the area, trying to form partnerships, so that we can continue to serve students here,” said Rebecca Hungerford, U3 program director. “I have every faith that will happen. It’s just taking longer than I expected.”
EvCC, Monroe schools and the Center for Career Alternatives nonprofit launched U3 in 2000. In the partnership agreement, EvCC has provided the classes, Monroe provides the funding, and the nonprofit — since switched 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 participated in the program each year, Hungerford said.
In its 2021-22 budget, the district approved almost $917,000 from its career and technical education fund to run U3. It was the most costly item of that fund. This past year, 156 students enrolled in the program. Of those, 32 lived in the Monroe School District. The rest were the program’s “choice transfer” students, or those who go to a Monroe school 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 also dissolves at the end of this month, but representatives from Shoreline said they have been able to find another partner to continue the program with few changes for students.
Monroe School District spokesperson Erin Zacharda said the district’s costs to partner with EvCC would have “increased significantly” this year because a waiver that exempted U3 from certain state requirements ended at the end of the 2021-22 school year. The program had been operating with that waiver since 2010, when state lawmakers established Open Doors, a “statewide dropout reengagement system” that helps students who are not expected to graduate from high school by age 21 to earn GEDs, diplomas, technical certifications or college degrees.
While similar to U3, Open Doors required higher staffing levels than the local program. The waiver exempted Monroe and EvCC from those requirements.
School officials started talking in November 2021 about “phasing out this outdated program,” Zacharda said. A review found fewer than 3% of students completed the U3 program in four years.
“In addition to the expiring waiver, student outcomes didn’t support the continuation of the program, and similar programs are available throughout the area,” she wrote. “Therefore, 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 — if one looks at the end result, rather than just whether a person finished the program. Of 97 students who started in the 2015-16 school year, 33 had earned a diploma within five years, 21 had earned an associate degree and 10 had earned a technical certificate. Many U3 students have gone on to graduate school or steady careers, she added.
“We have students who never ever would have seen themselves as college material or thought they would finish high school, and they come here and they find success,” Hungerford said. “They find confidence and they soar.”
That could be anyone, from a home schooled student who never went to school, or somebody caught up in drugs or alcohol, or somebody with physical or mental health issues that prevented them from being able to attend regularly, Hungerford said.
“There are so many reasons that a traditional high school environment does not work for a lot of kids,” she said.
Monroe spokeswoman Tamara Krache said high school students still have options for earning diplomas, GEDs and college degrees through nontraditional pathways. Monroe students, 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 Snohomish County school district, Edmonds, runs an Open Doors program supporting college classes. The rest supply 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 aren’t guaranteed a degree. The program also uses stricter age cutoffs, and students still pay out-of-pocket costs for books and supplies.
U3 has served a broader range of students — from age 16 to 21 — and offered direct support in the form of “case managers.” Students pay nothing to enroll.
“Unfortunately, many of those (other) options are not necessarily a great fit for U3 students — which is why they were choosing to be in U3 rather than one of those options in the first place,” Hungerford said.
Monroe notified EvCC of their decision in March. A month later, U3 advisors emailed students.
“We have recently been notified that after 21 years of serving students, Monroe has chosen to discontinue this partnership due to their recent education levy failing to be approved by voters,” the email says.
Smith, the U3 student, said they were frustrated to read that the future of their college education came down to a community vote. They plan to write to Gov. Jay Inslee and other state officials to “educate them on what’s going to happen because of the levy being denied.”
Hungerford clarified the district told the college its decision was prompted by financial reasons, but did not directly cite the levy. That piece was “implied,” she said.
Zacharda said while the decision does save the district money, it was not a direct result of the levy. The school board voted to discontinue the program on Feb. 14, 2022 — four days before election results for the failed levy were certified.
“The program would have been eliminated whether the levy passed or not,” Zacharda wrote.
Hungerford is converting U3 into an Open Doors program, and she hopes to partner with multiple local school districts. Already, the Darrington School District has signed on 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 that’s willing to accept choice transfer students, that will mean that U3 won’t be an option for that many more students,” Hungerford said.
She also is working to get Marysville, Everett and Lake Stevens on board as partners, because those cities are where the majority of the U3 students live.
“Ideally what I would like is one of our local districts to step up and say, ‘Yes, we will partner with you and also we will take choice transfers,’” Hungerford said. “That way, I would be able to serve any student.”
Smith was looking for ways to continue college courses in fall. They have applied for financial aid, but have yet to hear back. They also were considering signing up for Running Start.
“I am not completely sure if I’m going to be able to take fall classes,” Smith said. “The problem is getting funding for that, so I might not necessarily get funding in time to be in fall quarter.”
Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.
Mallory Gruben: 425-339-3035; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.