In Pr. George’s, high school students get learning experience on college campus

There’s a new experiment to get Prince George’s County high school students ready for higher education: sending them straight to college.

This fall, 100 ninth-graders will attend classes on the campus of Prince George’s Community College in Largo through a public school initiative called the Academy of Health Sciences. They’ll start with typical classes from high school teachers in such subjects as English, biology, math and Chinese.

By 11th grade, administrators expect these students to be immersed in college life. They’ll have meal plans. Ninety percent of their classes will be with professors and college students. Many are expected to earn enough credits to receive an associate’s degree along with a high school diploma.

“It’s going to help us save money for college,’’ said Sarah Tayel, 13, of Laurel, who is part of the first academy class. “And it feels so different to go to high school in the midst of adults.’’

The project, the first of its kind in Maryland, is starting despite the county’s recent budget troubles. School board members initially raised concerns about spending $2.1 million on the program while the system was facing a $155 million budget shortfall. But Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. championed the project, calling it a “rare opportunity.”

The program is known as a “middle college,” reflecting the idea that it blends high school and college. It enrolls students full time on a college campus, which sets it apart from dual-enrollment programs in which high school students take selected college courses for credit.

In the District, the School Without Walls Senior High School is a selective public school based on George Washington University’s campus. In some Virginia community colleges, students over 18 can enroll in programs that allow them to receive an associate’s degree and obtain a GED diploma.

In Prince George’s, the middle college targets disadvantaged students. Half of those students accepted into the program are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, or would be the first in their families to go to college.

Officials say the school aims to give motivated students an extra edge, socially and economically, in pursuing their college dreams. The school received 980 applications from eighth-graders. The 100 students admitted were chosen based on such factors as family income, an assessment test and grade-point averages.

“These are talented kids, who, if given the opportunity, can rise to the level,’’ said Kathy Richard Andrews, acting principal of the academy. “They have a lot of strengths. All they need is the opportunity.’’

To help ease students into campus life, administrators hosted a three-week summer orientation that ends this week.

On the first day of the session, Sarah and three other students walked with the school’s instructional specialist through the brick buildings on campus and past the bookstore. The dean explained that each year, the school will add a class of 100 until it reaches its targeted enrollment of 400.

“We’re pioneers!” Sarah exclaimed.

The students settled into a lecture hall, where an instructor divided them into groups of 10. They asked one another about their likes and dislikes. Then the instructor told them to treat answers as data and assemble a visual demonstration of the responses.

Through bar graphs, the students showed their collective love for hip-hop and preferences for sneakers over other shoes. In Jay-shawn Miller’s group, 60 percent already spoke more than one language. Two in the group knew how to speak four.

“We all have things in common that we like,’’ said Jay-shawn, 13, of Temple Hills. “Like biology.’’

The middle college concept is nearly four decades old, according to Cecilia Cunningham, director of the Middle College National Consortium and former principal at Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College in New York. There are 35 schools in the consortium, in addition to other middle colleges that are unaffiliated. Cunningham said the middle colleges have shown particularly strong results for those who are behind academically.

“When you change the milieu, something happens,” Cunningham said. “There’s a signal that goes off that they can rise to the challenge, if they have the support.”

Last year, a study the consortium commissioned from Teachers College-Columbia University concluded that students in such programs generally succeeded, regardless of their previous performance in middle school.

By the time the students graduated, 92 percent felt confident they could handle college course work, said Elisabeth Barnett, a senior research associate at Teachers College. The research also found that students who were below grade level when they entered middle college left 12th grade with roughly 30 college credits, and an average GPA of 2.35 in the college classes in which they were enrolled.

Still, the concept hasn’t gained much traction nationally, even as the number of high school students taking college classes through dual enrollment or taking Advanced Placement courses has risen.

“I think, quite honestly, the issue is, ‘Who pays for it?’ ” Cunningham said. “Does the district pay for it? Does the college?”

In Prince George’s, the questions were no different. During school board budget hearings in the spring, some parents contended that the academy would drain money from existing programs that faced cuts.

In the end, the school board voted to go ahead with the program, although it cut some of the academy’s transportation funding.

This summer, the students found themselves focused on the tasks ahead of them in coming years: anatomy, calculus and the ability to feel comfortable on a campus where the median student age is 24.

“I have a feeling this is going to be amazing,’’ Jay-shawn said. “And really hard.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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