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A path forward: Finishing high school with college degree

WEST JORDAN — In May, Travis Butterfield will earn his associate degree from Salt Lake Community College with credits to spare, a milestone on his path to a planned career in reconstructive surgery.

Assuming, of course, that he graduates from high school first.

"I still need to finish high school gym," he said. "It's the only thing holding me back from graduating."

Butterfield is a senior at ITINERIS Early College High School, a charter school located on the Jordan campus of Salt Lake Community College. There, Butterfield and his classmates split their time between courses at ITINERIS and college classes across the parking lot at the college, earning their way to a high school diploma and an associate degree simultaneously.

ITINERIS currently enrolls more than 250 students, all juniors and seniors, and administrators plan to expand to a larger building and include sophomores to top 400 students by the 2014-15 academic year, Assistant Principal Renee Edwards said.

Each year, roughly 70 percent of seniors collect an associate degree at the end of the year, Edwards said, and in 2012 the school graduated 95 percent of its senior class, well ahead of the state average of 78 percent. The school posts similarly high scores in ACT testing, in which the school's average score for 2011 was 24.6, compared to 21.9 for the state, and 48 percent of students tested college-ready in all four ACT sections, compared to 27 percent for their statewide peers.

"It definitely gives them access to rigorous college courses so that when they leave here and when they enter the university system, they know how to study, they know what’s expected of them," Edwards said. "Many of the students have their high school credits complete by the beginning of their senior year."

Academic head start

Utah has six early college high schools from Logan to St. George. These public charter schools were created during the past decade in district-college partnerships with seed money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Through a combination of advanced placement, concurrent enrollment and early college courses, students are able to begin their post-secondary studies early and in most cases enter higher education years ahead of their traditional-school peers.

The schools are producing graduation rates over 90 percent, and depending on the school's particular demographics, anywhere from a third of a class to an entire class of students leave high school with at least one year of completed college credit

Statewide, Utah graduates 78 percent of high school seniors. That figure has been steadily increasing, as has the number of students who take concurrent enrollment and early college courses, but a wide performance gap remains for minority students.

Moya Kessig, early college and gifted and talented specialist for the Utah State Office of Education, said the state does not track the percentage of students who complete a year of college while in high school. But she said last year 27,000 public school students took concurrent enrollment courses and earned a combined 189,387 college credits.

"That's a lot of credits generated," she said. "We're seeing an increase of kids taking more rigorous courses, which is great news."

Nationally, a push has begun to take early college education one step further with the creation of the Pathways in Technology Early College High School in New York, which adds a business partner to move at-risk students into high-skilled industry professions. Schools based on the P-Tech model have now opened in Chicago and similar schools are being planned in several states including Idaho, where the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation recently announced it would contribute $5 million to the creation of such a school.

The structure of early college education in Utah varies from school to school, but all early college charters have a focus on science, technology, engineering and math, commonly referred to as STEM education. The need for greater exposure to STEM fields at the high school and even junior high level has become a key issue with state lawmakers and education officials, who have called for targeted investments aimed at getting students interested in those fields.

At the state's early college high schools, that exposure is already happening.

"We’re really trying to use our hands-on STEM programs to encourage students to explore and pursue STEM careers," said Jason Stanger, principal and director of InTech Collegiate High School in North Logan. "One thing we’re hoping is that they will look at STEM and determine whether that’s what they want to do or not."

InTech serves approximately 160 students, grades nine through 12, and partners with Utah State University. Last year, roughly half of graduating seniors left the school with between one and two years of college credit completed, and, Stanger was quick to point out, one-third of the student body are first-generation college students.

That disruption of intergenerational poverty is a key component of the mission of the Academy for Math, Engineering and Science, or AMES, which is located within the campus of Cottonwood High School. Of the school's nearly 500 students, 52 percent are ethnic minorities and 48 percent come from economically disadvantaged homes, according to principal Brett Wilson.

The school had a 97 percent graduation rate last year, with slightly more than half of the 2012 senior class being first-generation college students. Collectively, the senior class earned 1,094 college credits for an estimated tuition savings of $503,120 based on the costs of attending the University of Utah.

School administrators at AMES also try to keep tabs on students after they graduate. Of the 92 students who graduated in 2011, Wilson said 87 went on to successfully complete their first year of college.

Entrance into the school is highly competitive, with 600 applicants vying for 138 slots last year, Wilson said. Students are selected through a lottery system, with consideration given to preserve the school's mission of preparing undeserved and ethnically diverse students for college.

Wilson said the school occasionally receives pushback from parents who object to their student being left out do to an ethnically conscious lottery system. But he reaffirmed that preparing a diverse and underserved population of students for college education was a key component of the school's charter and a motivating factor in AMES's creation.

"We reserve the right to match the diversity of Salt Lake and/or Granite school districts," Wilson said. "We've maintained that low-income, highly diverse population."

He also said there are no current plans to expand the number of students admitted into the school, partly due to the spacial limitations of AMES's location within Cottonwood High School. But the demand for slots at AMES would suggest that more early college offerings are needed, and the school's success at graduating minority students is a sharp contrast to the state as a whole, where Hispanic students have the fourth-worst graduation rate in the country.

AMES's Ogden counterpart, the Northern Utah Academy of Math, Engineering and Science, or NUAMES, is in the process of seeking approval to expand by 250 students over the next two years. NUAMES currently has an excess of 150 applications for next academic year.

The remaining schools reported having relatively small, or no, waiting lists. For example, Intech has never turned a student away but has already reached application capacity for next year, creating a scenario where one more applicant will require the school's first waiting list.

A different experience

The acceleration that comes with an early college program is not without its tradeoffs. As a result of the heightened rigor and added coursework inherent with a college track, schools trim down to the bare academic bones, eliminating some traditional high school offerings like drama, music and extracurricular clubs and athletics.

"The whole idea of early college high school is to give students who are academically prepared an opportunity to have a high school and college experience at the same time," Clark Baron, principal of the Utah County Academy of Sciences in Orem, said. "We are very upfront that when a student enters UCAS they need to be prepared immediately to start working at a college level."

Baron said his school, like other early college high schools in the state, holds school dances and assemblies and operates some activities, such as student government, to involve and engage students. Students are also able to participate in the athletic programs of the comprehensive high schools they would otherwise be attending.

But for other interests, he said, students must either participate privately or accept that jumping ahead of their academic peers carries some social costs.

"It is a sacrifice to come here," Baron said. "They’re missing out on some of the high school experience, but there are benefits also."

Because of its location within a comprehensive high school, as opposed to on or adjacent to a college campus, AMES students have the opportunity to interact with and take elective courses with the students of Cottonwood High School, Wilson said.

"All the electives — band, auto shop, all of those things we would be hard-pressed to do — we have that benefit," Wilson said.

Kessig praised the early college model, saying that for a particular segment of students who have a strong sense of where they want to go in life, it provides an opportunity to focus on their goals.

"There are some kids who really know what they want to do," she said. "For that type of student, they know the track and they're heading down it."

For the students at ITINERIS, less is more. Ashley Bohne, a senior who intends to go into the medical field after serving an LDS mission, said she has attended 11 schools with the early college charter being her clear favorite due to the small size and camaraderie among students.

"I've never been to a better school than ITINERIS," she said. "You don't get the same high school experience, there's not weird cliques like 'the jocks' and 'the nerds.'"

Breana Zuver, a senior who intends to study at Washington State University in pursuit as a career as a large animal veterinarian, agreed. She said she had looked forward to attending ITINERIS ever since hearing about it years ago.

"You could say we're all nerds," she said. "We're just different types of nerds."

Too much too soon

A common point of opposition in discussions of early college education is the worry that students are being pushed at too early an age to select their chosen careers. Connected to that concern are those who argue that with a finite number of hours in a school day, increased attention toward STEM education comes at the detriment of a generalized education that includes music and the arts.

Stanger said there is a great value in a generalized, liberal arts education. He said ideally, education should be a balance between broad instruction that engenders critical thinking on a wide array of subjects and specific training that prepares students to continue their education or enter the workforce.

He said it is common for college students to switch majors, sometimes repeatedly, before landing on a chosen career path. That academic indecision is costly, extending the time a student spends enrolled and paying tuition and in some cases preventing a person from following their true interests.

But early college high school students, he said, are able to experience and be introduced to higher education early, lessening the financial burden of pursuing a college degree and informing their decisions in selecting a major of study.

"Before they make that large investment in college, they’re able to make better decisions," Stanger said. "They’re making up their minds at a much less expensive time than if they did that later"

Baron said that early college high schools are subject to the same graduation requirements as any traditional high school and added that associate degrees typically comprise general education courses that don't pigeonhole a student into a particular field of study.

"Those first two years are exploratory," he said. "The vast majority of the kids graduate with a general associates, and from there they can branch off in many directions."

Early college students, like all charter students, have the ability to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities at their local comprehensive school. They also have the option of pursuing private lessons in music and art. But considering how early college high schools target a low-income and ethnically diverse population, many students may not have the same opportunities as other students to pursue their interests outside of school.

Kessig said there's validity to the concerns of overspecialization, which is precisely why comprehensive schools offer a wide array of elective coursework. But she said the drawback of a scaled-down early college education could be viewed as an advantage, as students have access to the performances, exhibits, concerts and symposia of a college campus.

"They have access to that, so they're not devoid of opportunities," she said.

Edwards said the early college model is far from an ideal fit for every student. She said the state's comprehensive high schools are doing a great job of educating and preparing the bulk of Utah's students. But for a small segment of the student population, who may feel uncomfortable with the traditional system or who are interested in an accelerated and focused path to higher education, early colleges provide an answer.

"We don’t select our students — students choose to come here," Edwards said. "Whatever is best for the kids is what we’re hoping they’ll choose."

Lessons learned

When asked what traditional schools could do, absent a bare-bones curriculum and a university partnership, to mirror the success of early college high schools, all of the administrators spoke to the strength of small class sizes and individualized, personal instruction.

"You can’t do what we do with 3,200 kids," Wilson said. "You do have to have a small school size, which translates into small class size where students receive individual attention."

Edwards agreed, saying that ITINERIS' only magic formula was the sense of trust teachers were able to cultivate with their students as a result of a smaller segment of the state's student population.

"I think it comes down to connections with students," she said. "If there isn’t a way to provide some smaller learning communities, then students don’t have that trusted adult in their lives year after year, and I think that’s what works."

Class sizes in Utah's public schools are among the largest in the country in a direct correlation with the state's dubious honor of spending the least per student of any state.

Financial limitations and logistical challenges will always be a reality in public education, but Wilson said a focus on creating a individualized and personal environment can go a long way, even when the funding doesn't.

"It’s the relationship between teacher and student, that small group, where you’re treated as equals and can ask a question at any time," Wilson said. "We can ask for more rigor and more work out of our students because of the relationships we have with them."

Kessig said that she was not aware of any discussions to expand the number of early college high schools in the state. She said with public education funding at its current level, maintaining the state's existing schools takes higher priority.

But she added that there was nothing stopping individuals or groups who intend to found charter schools from modeling their programming after the early college model.

When asked what could be done to mirror the success of the early college schools, Kessig said that it was the schools' sense of community that set them apart. She said comprehensive schools have already begun initiatives like schools within schools and extracurricular study groups to try and foster that same nurturing atmosphere.

"People are working toward that," she said. "Everybody knows what best practices are and everyone is in the process of trying to provide that at their school."