A New Tack to Help High-Schoolers At Risk: College

Bell Multicultural students Diego Pereira and Martha Medina, both 16, and Lucinda Lovos, 15, take the Metro to the University of the District of Columbia.
Bell Multicultural students Diego Pereira and Martha Medina, both 16, and Lucinda Lovos, 15, take the Metro to the University of the District of Columbia. (Photos By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

At Bell Multicultural Senior High School in Washington, some sophomores have a schedule like this: first period, geometry; second, world history; third, English; fourth, college. Twice a week, a group of students, a few with Michael Jordan or Hello Kitty backpacks, catch the Metro and dash to a criminology class at the University of the District of Columbia.

The extra class means more homework, long lists of new vocabulary words and tougher quizzes.

"It's worth it to get the college credit," said Omar Marroquin, 15, whose father was born in El Salvador and whose mother came from Guatemala. He aims to be the first in his family to graduate from college.

U.S. high school students have more avenues to earn college credit than ever. In the 2002-03 school year, 1.8 million students took Advanced Placement courses, 1.2 million signed up for dual enrollment classes with a partnering college and about 165,000 pursued an International Baccalaureate diploma, according to the most recent survey by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Although most schools offer such accelerated opportunities, they tend to attract high achievers and students who have plenty of resources. College-credit programs tailored to disadvantaged students, including those who might drop out, are less common.

That's a niche Bell and other schools are seeking to fill, as part of a movement called early college high schools. These schools put secondary students on college campuses, often on track to earn two-year associate's degrees along with their high school diplomas at no cost. The goal is to give students more challenging, career-oriented classes, with support when needed, in an effort to keep them in school.

The closely watched program is one of many efforts in recent years to restructure U.S. high schools and bridge the gap to college. Federal data show that only two-thirds of students who earn a high school diploma or pass an alternative equivalency test go on to college within a year.

With $120 million in seed money, mostly from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 130 early college high schools have been formed since 2002. At least 120 more are planned. In Washington state, several early college programs opened on reservations for Native American students. In Houston, George I. Sanchez Charter High School accepts students who have been arrested or rejected from other public schools in its early college program.

Some early college programs take high school dropouts and put them on a new high school-college track. In Oregon, Portland Community College has a program for high school dropouts, some of whom have been homeless. In Maryland, Montgomery College also has a program for high school dropouts. In the District, Bell Multicultural and Friendship Public Charter School's Collegiate Academy have early college programs that serve mainly African American and Hispanic students from low-income families.

"People thought we were completely crazy, that we were school reform romantics," said Nancy Hoffman, director of the early college initiative for Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based organization that oversees the program. "Nobody thought that these kids would be graduating high school with [associate of arts] degrees."

But some have. Results from the initiative are beginning to emerge. At Harbor Teacher Prep Academy in Wilmington, Calif., 31 of 50 students in the program graduated with an associate's degree in the spring, and all were accepted to four-year colleges. At International High School in New York, 21 of 38 students graduated with associate's degrees, and all were admitted to four-year colleges.

At Bell and Friendship, the overriding goal is not to have students earn associate's degrees as teenagers but rather to give them a jump-start and to get them acclimated to a college campus so they will feel confident enough to see college through.

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