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Local students will soon have a new option to finish their high school education while getting job training or working toward a degree.

Lower Columbia College has partnered with Kelso School District and Longview School District to give students ages 16-21 a path to a GED or high school diploma. The students will also get vocational training or credits toward an associate’s degree. Participating students must have dropped out or not be expected to graduate to qualify for the program, which opens in January and is called Open Doors.

The program is part of a statewide effort across nearly 150 school districts.

Lacey DeWeert, assistant director of teaching and learning in Kelso School District, said the program aims to give struggling young adults an education and a good job.

“A lot of these kids are supporting themselves or their families,” DeWeert said. “Kids can leave (the program) and be employable right away, because that’s what they need at that point.”

While the districts already have an agreement in place with Goodwill Industries for job training, DeWeert said the program with LCC will open up more vocational training options in popular areas such as healthcare, welding and early childhood education.

“That’s what makes partnering with LCC so exciting,” DeWeert said. “Our kids will have access to 21 of their vocational programs in high-demand career areas.”

LCC also runs a 10-year-old high school completion program, Career Educational Options, according to Theresa Stalick, LCC’s associate dean for basic education. However, it is based on a more traditional “seat time” model. It has less class time flexibility and does not offer a path to a GED.

In contrast, Open Doors students will earn credits as soon as they prove competency, she said, and the new program will offer more flexible scheduling, with classes offered online or in person in the morning, afternoon and evening.

The array of options available under Open Doors is a “unique opportunity” that fits with LCC’s overall vision, Stalick said.

“Our mission is to help students gain success, whether that is pursuit of four-year education, a two-year certification, a two-year degree or professional technical education,” Stalick said. “We want to find out what students need and meet their needs. Then, they’ll become productive members of the community, be self-sufficient and find employment.”

DeWeert and Stalick said they don’t expect Open Doors to drastically increase the number of Kelso and Longview students involved in all these dropout “re-engagement” programs, now about 60.

“You have to be between 16 and 21, deficient in high school credits or referred by education provider,” Stalick said. “I wouldn’t expect a flood of students to qualify.”

DeWeert said she expects some students would switch into Open Doors, but there is no current enrollment estimate.

“What’s nice about all of this is it’s about best fit, so if a kid wanted to shift between (programs), there’s fluidity,” DeWeert said.

DeWeert said the program is provided to students at no cost. The state funds the Open Doors program the same as it funds education at a traditional high school. The per-student funding is simply redirected to LCC instead of going to the high schools.

“Our goal is to make sure 100% of all Kelso kids graduate,” DeWeert said. “And for some of our kids, the traditional high school isn’t the right fit.”

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