Saturday, June 08, 2002

More Early College--Story of My Life . . .

When I was fifteen my home life was less than ideal. I was working part-time as a bookkeeper for a corvette shop, Coast Corvette, and I wanted to go to college. In order to do that, I had to wait until I was 16, take the California High School Equivalency exam (a test that made the GED look rigorous), and then wait for the results. When I turned 16 and I had proof that I passed the exam, I enrolled in Fullerton community college.

That was one of the best decisions I ever made. Escaping the mandatory constraints of my junior and senior year of high school, allowed me to work, study, and survive in a way that would not have been possible if I was forced to attend high-school full time.

From Fullerton College I went on to finish my masters degree at California State University Fullerton (CSUF) and began coaching argumentation and debate for CSUF and teaching public-speaking courses at various California community colleges. I was 22.

So I was heartened to see yesterday's New York Times story, A Year of Squeezing 6 into 4, by Karen Arenson, describing a New York program that lets high school students attend early college.

In 2001, New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy invited Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, to design a model early college program. In September 2001, the Bard High School Early College opened its doors on the fourth floor of a public middle school in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

This year the program had 246 students from diverse ethnic backgrounds; 35 percent are black, 30 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, and 12 percent Asian. According to the New York Times, "Many are from poor immigrant families. Some came from undistinguished public high schools, others from private schools or selective public high schools. The goal was not to find high scorers on tests, but ambitious students."

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plan to use Bard as a model for creating up to 70 new early-college high schools across the country.

My fellow education-blogger, Jeff Sackmann, describes the role school choice will likely play in the continuing success of the program:

"This program works so well, I bet, because students chose it. (Say "duh" if you'd like.) This school didn't manage to magically attract the few dozen motivated students in the NYC metro area to one school; it found the few dozen students who would be motivated by a program like this one. Or, more accurately, the students found the school.

To me, that is a big part of why school choice is so important. To the extent that a wide range of schools appear (and, given the financial incentives inherent in vouchers, they will), every student will be attending a school that is attractive to him or her (or, at least, the student's parents)."

The new study by the Center for School Change (CSC) at the University of Minnesota, "What Really Happened? Minnesota's Experience with Statewide Public School Choice Programs," offers more support for Jeff's argument.

In 1985 the Minnesota Legislature adopted the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options Act (PSEO). This law allowed high school juniors and seniors to attend colleges or universities full or part time, with tax funds following them from school districts to pay for tuition and books.

In 1985, 3,500 11th and 12th graders chose to attend post-secondary courses offered on college campuses. By 2001, more than 7,000 students were enrolled in courses at Minnesota colleges and universities. In addition, close to 10,000 more students were taking college courses offered at their high schools by post-secondary institutions. Thirty percent of these students were actually full-time college students. The college credits count toward a high school diploma and a college degree.

The PSEO program has offered students a wide variety of courses that would not otherwise be available to them. The program has benefited both low-performing and high-achieving students. The Center for Social change study describes Ann, a high-performing student in a suburban high school:

"She enrolled in one course during her junior year to see how she would do in college, By her senior year, she was enrolled full-time in the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology. She went on to complete her bachelor's degree with honors-at the age of twenty."

Even more compelling, the CSC study describes what Paul, the underachiever, wrote about his experience:

"If I hadn't had the opportunity to enroll in Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, I would certainly not have become an honors student, much less a college student. High school was just holding me back. I was in trouble in grade school; my junior high performance was poor. But when I found out about this program I decided to go for it. Here at the university I have yet to get a C. All my grades are A's or B's. I never used to get an A or a B. This program was the saving grace for me and changed my life around."

The Center for Social Change's 2001 survey of the PSEO program participants found that:

* 78 percent report learning more than in high school.
* 75 percent are being challenged more than high school.
* 80 percent feel more academically prepared for college.

The program prohibits high school students from taking "remedial" college course to prevent students from using the program as a way to enroll in less challenging curriculum than high school.

While there has been a national trend in increases in high school offerings of advanced placement courses, in Minnesota some of the increase in AP courses has been attributed to competition from the PSEO program. In 1986 297 students took 374 AP exams. By 2001, almost 15,000 students took more than 23,000 AP exams.

The PSEO program has also had a positive impact on the relationship between school districts and post-secondary institutions. A legislator's audit report cited in the CSC study found that 52 percent of school principals reported increased cooperation with Minnesota colleges and universities.

Like Paul, going to college early helped change my life. It played a significant role in my escape from childhood poverty (we didn't have a phone, my mom usually didn't have a car, and getting our electricity shut off was the norm).

My "choice" to attend college early is one of the reasons I believe in school choice for every child. Programs that let children get a head start in college are but one of the many school-choice options available to truly help kids and their parents use education as a way to improve their lives.

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