Pairing a Diploma With Associate's Degree

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Programs that allow students to earn college credit while in high school sound as if they have been designed for the smartest, most ambitious teens. But that's not necessarily so.

Scores of early college high schools are operating today, allowing teenagers -- many of whom don't believe they are college material -- to earn a high school diploma and two years of college credit toward a bachelor's degree at the same time.

Students at Bard High School Early College in New York, for example, can graduate from the four-year program with a diploma and an associate of arts degree.

"It's not all the precocious rocket scientists," said Michael Lerner, the school's associate dean of studies. "We have plenty of students who might not have made it through high school, but they rise to the challenge that we present."

These schools, many of them funded by nonprofit foundations (often in partnership with an institution of higher education), are one of numerous efforts by educators to change the traditional high school experience, which has become beset with dropout rates that reach 50 percent in some areas.

Schools are trying a range of alternatives, including creating small academies that allow students to concentrate on a subject and internship programs that give kids a taste of the work world.

Bard, like many early college high schools, is a public school, and although students must apply for entry, administrators say they are not looking for top test scorers. They seek students who read at or close to grade level and then interview applicants to see whether they are capable of doing the work.

Students apply for numerous reasons, Lerner said, including a desire to be challenged as well as to eliminate two years of college tuition. Bard, which has 540 students, limits admissions but does not charge tuition.

In Northeast Washington, an early college program opened last year at Friendship Collegiate Academy, with the ultimate aim of awarding students a high school diploma and an associate of arts degree that is being developed at the University of the District of Columbia.

"The primary objective is to prepare students for college success," program Dean Arsallah Shairzay said. "We serve essentially as a bridge between the secondary and postsecondary learning environments."

-- Valerie Strauss

© 2006 The Washington Post Company