A New Tack to Help High-Schoolers At Risk: College
At No Cost, Students Earn Diplomas Along With 2-Year Associate's Degrees

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.

Students in the programs can get tutoring and other help. Every Friday, Bell's collegegoers take a college readiness class that covers such subjects as office hours, time management and note-taking, said Adaora Nwigwe, the school's early college program coordinator.

At Montgomery College, the accelerated program works well for Karmen Holman, 16. She got good grades in school but had a baby in ninth grade and dropped out a year later. At college, she can take night classes, which helps with day care. She's treated like an adult and said she does not feel stigmatized for being a teenage mother.

James Kennedy, 16, said he was on the verge of dropping out of school when he got into trouble in a drug-related incident.

At his previous school, Kennedy said, "teachers would spend more time yelling at their students. They didn't care about what they were teaching." Before, he didn't really think of college as a possibility.

At Montgomery College, he's more engaged in his classes, he said, because they are taught by experts in their fields.

Some educators believe that the traditional high school, with its social pressures and focus on discipline, is a waste of time for a large number students.

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in New York, which partners with an early college high school in Manhattan, contends that high school should end after 10th grade. Afterward, he said, students should be able to choose what they want to study, to motivate them to pursue their educations.

"High school is an outmoded, obsolete structure," Botstein said. "It is inadequate to deal with young adults who grow up in our society with an immense amount of freedom they don't know how to handle."

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, who is a champion of the movement through his foundation, also called high schools "obsolete" in a widely quoted speech to governors early last year.

After class at UDC, a few of the Bell students said criminology interests them in part because they have relatives who have been incarcerated or because they are used to being stopped on the street by police for violating the city's curfew. They said those experiences made them want to know their rights and to pursue jobs as lawyers or possibly as investigators for the FBI.

Many adults consider youths troublemakers, Omar said. "But there's some honestly good students. Look at us. We are taking college classes."

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