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August 13, 2014
Story by Jade McDowell
PENDLETON, Ore. – The governor mentioned it twice in a recent debate. The state’s chief education officer called it the best model in Oregon. Now the state is giving out grants for replicating it.
What is it about Eastern Promise that makes it the darling of education reform in Oregon?
Eastern Promise director Dan Mielke has some ideas.
First, he said, the program is unusual in the way it functions as a true partnership between two community colleges, 33 school districts, an education service district and a state university.
“Up until the replication of this project, it’s a pretty unique thing that occurred,” Mielke said.
Other dual credit programs exist, but Eastern Promise is unusual in its structure. It removes a major barrier by allowing high school teachers with a master’s in education but not their specific subject to teach a college credit class.
All of Oregon’s public universities, and most of its private schools, are still willing to accept credit for the classes because students’ work is graded by college professors, who also train the teachers to make the classes as rigorous as they would be on a university campus.
“That hasn’t always happened with other dual credit programs,” Mielke said.
Next, the program goes beyond earning credits and works to instill a “college culture” early. In fifth grade students look at their post-secondary options and take a college campus tour, and students in ninth grade take a career-planning class where they develop a 10-year plan.
“That’s usually a class students take in their junior year, but by that point a lot of their choices have already been made,” Mielke said.
Finally, Mielke said Eastern Promise is particularly good at reaching under-served populations like native Spanish speakers. The numbers back that up: 23 percent of students in the region are Hispanic but 44 percent of Eastern Promise students fall under that demographic.
After two years of Eastern Promise the data is still preliminary. But Mielke said it is already showing promising results.
Less than 600 students participated in Eastern Promise in its inaugural year, but that number jumped up to 1,915 in its second year — about 20 percent of the region’s high school students.
“We think that’s a pretty dynamic number in terms of change,” Mielke said.
He said last year 13,847 credit hours were earned through Eastern Promise’s “credit for proficiency” courses offered at the high schools. Another 15,766 came from dual credit classes at Blue Mountain Community College and Treasure Valley College, which didn’t see a hit to their numbers despite the new college credit opportunity.
At $10 a credit hour, Mielke said the Eastern Promise numbers for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 combine for $1.7 million in savings on tuition for area students.
InterMountain Education Service District director Mark Mulvihill is one of the program’s founders. He said part of the reason the state is latching on to the Eastern Promise idea is its way of delivering tangible results right away.
“Test scores go up and down, but Eastern Promise is different,” he said. “You can feel and touch and hold on to your kid getting college credit.”
Often good ideas for education reform are abandoned when they hit roadblocks or take years to bear fruit, Mulvihill said. But Eastern Oregon has succeeded in implementing Eastern Promise by being “persistently stubborn.”
“We have broken down barriers like no one else has,” he said. “Where other people said ‘You can’t do that because of this,’ we said ‘We’re doing it.’”
Now five other regions have been given an Eastern Promise Replication Grant to build similar programs. They’re taking advantage of the hurdles already cleared by Eastern Promise, but they’re also able to put a local spin on it, a component Mulvihill said is important.
“This state is so diverse that any type of one-size-fits-all is going to be a train wreck,” he said.
Mulvihill said the leaders of Eastern Promise still have plenty of work to do, especially in serving disadvantaged populations.
A breakthrough idea implemented last year may help. Eastern Promise staff contacted native Spanish speakers and offered them the chance to take a college exam that would allow them to test out of several college-level Spanish classes. A total of 113 students earned 12 college credits, something Mulvihill said might convince some of them to give college a closer look.
“It gives them a jump start to say ‘Hey, maybe I can do this,’” Mulvihill said.
He said some critics are worried that Eastern Promise is handing out credits too readily, but that’s not the case.
If a student takes Writing 101 at a university, the class will be a semester long and there might be 200 students in the room. If they take the class through Eastern Promise, the class is a year long, represents more individual attention and is graded by a professor who applies the same standards as he or she does to the course at the university.
“It’s actually more rigorous in some ways,” Mulvihill said.
Governor John Kitzhaber is certainly a fan, as are state schools superintendent Rob Saxton and chief education officer Nancy Golden. All three have mentioned Eastern Promise multiple times as they travel the state promoting the state’s goal of all Oregon students graduating from high school, 40 percent earning an associate’s degree and 40 percent earning a bachelor’s degree by 2025.
“There is no question this is the most significant transformational event from 40-40-20,” Mulvihill said.
A promise made
2013-2014 school year
Number of school districts: 33
Academic Momentum participation: 1,804 fifth graders
Success 101 participation: 519 ninth graders
Eastern Promise college classes: 1,915 students
Credit hours earned: 13,847
Traditional dual credits from BMCC and TVCC: 15,766
Tuition savings over two years: $1.7 million
*Numbers provided by Eastern Promise
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