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Driver-ed classes still provide a measurable reduction in teen crashes, state statistics show

Oregon City Police Officer Brian Willard often tells parents a story of Madison West on the week that Oregon City School District's driver-ed program starts.

PHOTO BY: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Oregon City Police Officer Brian Willard and the Oregon City School Districts Driver-Ed Program Coordinator Suz Figini show off the programs new folders. OCPD supplies the driver-ed program with the folders for the students to keep all their work and lanyards for their future keys.Willard conducts an eight-hour traffic safety class once a month, and West was one of the graduates of an ODOT-approved driver-ed program. West was an Oregon City High School senior who died in 2015 after crashing head-on with another car on Redland Road. In certain circumstances Oregon City Municipal Judge Laraine McNiece will reduce citations by sending violators to Willard's Education on Vehicle Awareness and Defensive Driving (EVADD) Traffic School.

Willard tells the story because ODOT-approved driver-ed programs are shown to reduce the incidents of teen crashes, but they're no substitute for good judgement and continued learning. Just as he didn't consider himself an expert in law enforcement after graduating from a 16-week police academy, Willard says that good driving requires years of practice and constant vigilance.

"I think the story has an impact," said Willard, whose own two kids went through the driver-ed program in the Gresham area. "That can be stressful having to understand parents' fears and reservations. From the passenger side, I've had to be like, 'You're about to hit that mailbox!' while my kids practiced their driving."

Willard said that many young people are so addicted to looking at their phones that they keep right on doing it while they're driving. Talking with parents in plain clothes, rather than in uniform, he says it will take a long time to educate young drivers on the dangers of using electronic devices while behind the wheel.

On Oct. 1, state law changed to ban drivers from have cell phones in their hands or their laps. Now you can't scroll or fiddle with your phone in the driver's seat, and you're only allowed a quick, one-touch motion to turn your phone on or off. Using a communications device while driving is now a Class B violation, punishable by a $260 fine with potentially enhanced citations in safety zones.

By the end of OCSD driver-ed parent night, parents typically surround Willard asking him follow-up questions. He says that it's important for OCPD's nearly four-year-old traffic team, now up to three dedicated officers, to reach out to parent and community groups.

Suz Figini, OCSD's driver-ed program coordinator, said involvement of parents and police in the program has made a positive impact. OCPD School Resource Officer David Plummer comes to the driver-ed classes on the week the students start driving.

"Traffic crashes are the No. 1 killer of our teens nationally, and it's mostly distracted driving, whether they're texting or Facebooking or whatever," Figini said. "Our program is designed to teach them the skills, but they still have to go out and put that knowledge into practice."

Figini relates to Willard's stories about West and his own kids, since one of Figini's own daughters was caught by Willard making an illegal left-turn in front of OCHS. Figini's daughter, who had taken the driver-ed course, ended up taking Willard's EVADD course as "continuing education" to avoid having the citation appear on her permanent record.

Driver-ed classes still provide a measurable reduction in teen crashes, state statistics show. When a student enrolls in an ODOT-approved driver-ed program, that student's permit number is entered into a database used to bear out the benefits of the classes. Currently only 37 percent of eligible Oregon teens avail themselves of the program, but about 30 percent of crashes involved 16-year-olds at the wheel who had taken the program. Once they turn 18, the crash rate for ODOT-approved driver-ed graduates goes down to less than 5 percent.

"Students who take driver-ed are better drivers, and they have good statistics to show that," Figini said.

More than 10 percent of the EVADD students are teens, Willard says, and a portion of the $75 fee to take the class goes to driver-ed scholarships given out by the school district. Families who are low-income are only required to pay $50 out of a $325 tuition for the ODOT driver-ed class. Figini gets $1,000 quarterly for five $200 scholarships. An additional $75 scholarship from ODOT is available for kids on free or reduced lunch.

Winter term registrations have begun at ochspioneers.org/driver-education.

Figini is also encouraging new certified driver-ed instructors who are paid to teach the class. One of Figini's teachers, Marilyn Stewart, took the Driver Education Class through Western Oregon University to become certified because of her grandchildren and their friends.

"As they were learning to drive, they would ask for my help," Stewart said. "Driving with teens has so enriched my life. Teens are amazing. This is a perfect job for retirement; I get to choose my own schedule. I also feel as if I am giving back by helping high school students be much safer drivers. Win, win!"

If you are interested in becoming a driver-ed instructor, sign up at triwou.org/projects/tse.

Gladstone wins grant for kindergarten science

The kindergarten science program at the Gladstone Center for Children & Families has received a $2,500 grant from the Kinsman Foundation.

The funds will support weekly science instruction for all kindergarten students, plus a monthly Science Hour open to children 6 and under. The free Science Hour events start at 4:15 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month.

GHS plans career/technical programs, college credit opportunities

This year, Gladstone High is investing in new programs that focus on three goals: expanding career-technical programs, raising the graduation rate and increasing the number of students earning college credits in high school.

These efforts, spurred by the passage of Measure 98, are in response to voters' desire to help every student find success.

"One goal is to increase our graduation rate to 90 percent in the next two years," said Principal Kevin Taylor.

To accomplish this, the school launched a new on-line credit recovery program and changed the schedule to allow more time for after school help from teachers. The school is also closely tracking ninth grade progress and juniors with credit deficiencies.

While Gladstone High now offers 32 different career-technical classes, the school hopes to add more career pathways after gathering student input. Healthcare occupations, technology careers, and culinary arts are some options under consideration.

Increasing the number of students who earn college credits while in high school is another goal. While Gladstone High now offers 67 sections of college-credit classes, many do not take advantage.

"Why not pay $10 per credit now instead of $200 or more at a university?" asked Taylor. "Students who take advantage of these opportunities can often save $20,000 or more on college tuition."

Clackamas Bookshelf honored

The Gladstone School Board honored the Clackamas Bookshelf for their work distributing free books to low-income students.

Since the 2014 launch of the Gladstone-based nonprofit, the group has distributed over 38,000 books across Clackamas County. Over 14,000 of those were given to Gladstone youths.

"Research shows that if children have at least 25 books in their home, their odds of success in school increase dramatically," explained Executive Director Katy Preston. "We want every child in Clackamas County to have books to call their own."

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