Shrinking the gap... (Part 3 of 3) Getting ahead

BOURBON — What does it take for a student to graduate from college while still in high school? In the first place, we are talking about a two-year associate degree or completion of a two-year technical certification, not a four-year degree.
Even so, receiving a college degree and a high school diploma at the same time has been practically unheard of until now. With the cost of higher education and the tight job market, such an option for high school graduates is becoming more and more appealing. Such a dually-graduating student would:
• Pay much less for the two-year degree than on a college campus;
• Enter the job market with a definite degree or certification advantage over peers graduating in the same year; and
• Have a two-year head start on peers graduating at the same time heading for a four-year degree.
The concerns of professional high school guidance counselors stated in last week’s article must be reiterated here. Some feel that the effort to help high school students earn a college degree is too much too soon. In order not to waste time taking college courses which do not apply to your associate degree, the student must have decided exactly what degree they want in what field and at the particular post-secondary institution partnering with the high school. The counselors’ concern is that students may be forced or encouraged into career decisions before they are developmentally ready to make them. How can a student possibly be ready as an entering high school junior to make such decisions? (Dual credit courses are offered in the junior and senior years only, and then, sufficient courses are not usually available to complete an associate degree.)
Enter the latest innovation in this early college debate: the Early College High School model championed by the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning (CELL) at the University of Indianapolis. This organization is the same group that developed and sponsors the New Tech High School model, an example of which is the Weidner School of Inquiry at Plymouth High School, as well as schools in Rochester and at Oregon Davis. (New Tech high schools promote project-based learning and are not early college models.)
Janet Boyle, assistant director of CELL, said: “The Early College model was originally designed for poverty-level or first generation college students. It is now being expanded to include other students—B and C grade point students, for example.” She summarized by saying, “Many high schools offer dual credit [actually, they all do—ed.]. Early College goes beyond dual credit. It is aiming at the associate degree.”
Which county schools are forging into this all-encompassing arena? One school so far is actively progressing toward this designation: Triton Jr./Sr. High School located in Bourbon. Triton is now an “exploring” Early College High School. By fall, 2013, it plans to be an “emerging” school, meaning that it espouses the concept of ECHS and is actively organizing to fulfill that goal. After two years of “emerging,” Triton will be eligible to be awarded the “endorsed” designation only given to schools which have proven successful with the ECHS model after two years of consistent success.
For the following statistics, refer to the map of Early College High School Development as of December. There are currently only three “endorsed” ECHS’s in Indiana. They are Bellmont in Adams County and Ben Davis University and Tindley Accelerated in Marion County. Triton joins eleven other schools as currently “exploring.” In the fall, Triton will be one of only six “emerging” ECHS’s in the state. The closest “emerging” school is East Allen in Allen County, and the only relatively close schools which are even “exploring” are Rochester, Peru, and Wabash. It is a major commitment which can transform a school’s persona and even that of the entire school corporation.
How do Early College High Schools deal with the guidance counselors’ concerns about students not being ready for career decisions? Mike Chobanov, Triton Jr./Sr. High School principal, listed ways in which Triton is engaging students early in the career planning process. First, in the sixth and seventh grades, students work with strengths inventories such as “Drive for Your Life” from the state and “Your Interests” online. In the seventh and eighth grades, students learn prerequisites for early college and are involved in planning their courses before high school sign-up. In ECHS, students may take some classes as ninth- or 10th-graders, not just as juniors or seniors, as is almost universally true of Dual Credit classes.
Triton plans to begin its ECHS career with general studies classes, often called “liberal arts” or “basic studies.” Students could thus earn an associate degree which would transfer and become the first half of a four-year degree. Later plans are to add technical programs and certifications which match the greatest employment opportunities for students not continuing past the associate degree. Chobanov indicated that in the future, Triton hopes to add mentoring with area businesses.
The general plan in Early College High Schools is to make interests and career paths a guiding principle throughout the school corporation — engaging students early, often, and meaningfully in coming to understand their own gifts and interests.
Boyle, who visited Triton before Christmas, explains some of the techniques used in other schools to create a seamless transition to college. “First, there is a college culture created in the high school,” she said. “It begins with the teachers’ degrees and preparation, and can include such mundane but useful things as college banners and bulletin boards and a lounge/study area for ECHS students.” She continued: “Then, there is created a system of student support from ninth grade on to get students ready to succeed in dual credit courses. There are usually placement exams, tutoring, explanation of syllabi, and college visits every year — not just in the junior and senior years.”
While each ECHS designs its own plan of total operation, larger high schools might tend to make the ECHS a segment of their total student enrollment. Smaller schools like Triton will tend to make the entire school ECHS. Tindley Accelerated School in Indianapolis, one of the three “endorsed” ECHS’s, only has 250 to 300 students total in grades six through 12. This brings up the question: What if every student is not going to post-secondary education or training, and the entire high school is ECHS?
Ivy Tech is a post-secondary school which not only works heavily in Dual Credit programs, but has also endorsed the further concept of using its dual credit opportunities in Early College High Schools. Tracie Davis, executive director of marketing and communication of Ivy Tech’s North Central regional campus which serves Marshall County, says: “There is a value to everyone in completing a college-level class. Ivy Tech President Tom Snyder says that this is a way for Ivy Tech to impact every high school student.” In a smaller ECHS such as Triton, the goal is for every student to graduate with an associate college degree or two-year technical certificate. Even if that does not realistically happen, the effort expended will result in more students achieving this goal or at least gaining college credit in some classes.
Triton Jr./Sr. High School will be working throughout this semester to finalize its approach to gaining the Early College High School designation and approach. Exact strategies and methods are yet to be settled, but this small rural school corporation is destined to be on the cutting edge of motivating and educating students. Students who either live in the district or transfer in will have the real opportunity to graduate with, as principal Chobanov says, “Me handing them both a high school diploma and an associate college degree.”