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Don’t shortchange struggling students

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This is where the leaders of the state’s public school system truly must confront the reality of the budget crisis, and it has a human face. Many of the roughly 1,700 teens who are assigned to the 31 alternative learning centers get the combination of tough love and specialized attention they need to earn the credits required for graduation.

Today the state Board of Education will vote on whether to delete the $2.9 million line item from the Department of Education budget underwriting these centers, under pressure to help the state close its fiscal gap. Instead, the DOE proposes to leave it up to schools to find the money for their centers from the per-pupil allotment they get, a calculation bases on the state’s weighted student formula.

It’s hard to see how the board can avoid that difficult decision for the short term. However, assuming the painful cut is made, the search for a better route should begin as soon as the vote is recorded.

Alternative learning centers, generally located off campus, help the schools fulfill their mission in two ways. First, the small class size and the simple change of scene can enable teachers to break through barriers. Students fall behind for various reasons, including distractions such as difficult family circumstances, and many need an extra push to catch them up and restore confidence.

Second, students who feel alienated in the regular campus setting can cause disruptions that subtract from the attention the teachers can give the larger part of their classes. Summoning the resource of the learning center can free the teacher to help them, too.

Randy Moore, the assistant DOE superintendent making the case to change the funding mechanism, said that because most schools have not had to set aside alternative-learning funds themselves, they may have leaned too heavily on them. He probably has a point there, but that shouldn’t mean the centers should be left entirely without dedicated support.

Officials have pointed out that some alternative learning centers already are funded by the high schools themselves, so this is not without precedent. However, some schools with smaller enrollments are hard-pressed to divert enough funds for their own centers, so creating school partnerships for funding purposes should be explored. Strategies for sharing the funding burden among schools need to be developed.

Further, department officials should seek private foundation grants or other sponsors to help subsidize the centers, beyond what individual schools can parcel out.

This proposed budgetary change does not mean the end of learning centers, though it certainly would mean tighter competition for a school’s dollars if deemed a priority. Hawaii’s public schools are there to provide a basic education for all students, regardless of problems arising from social problems or other challenges. The alternative learning centers have guided struggling teens toward graduation. About 90 percent earn their diploma, and 85 percent pass all their classes.

It’s hard to argue with a success rate like that. If the DOE and campus communities can be resourceful in their search for funds and in-kind support, perhaps the argument can be settled relatively soon. This could be the last and best chance for these at-risk students to clear a difficult hurdle and begin productive adult lives, and all our kids deserve that chance.

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