On paper, Amesbury High School is an attractive New England school, serving a middle class population of 700 students. The school is in the middle of the pack on the Massachusetts graduation exam. It offers a healthy array of advanced placement courses, as well as an assortment of dual enrollment college courses through a partnership with nearby Northern Essex Community College (NECC). However, only 25 to 35 percent of students take advantage of these options.
Far too many Amesbury students perform passably in high school and head off to college, where they fail the college placement exams and find themselves in expensive, non-credit-bearing remedial courses. For some, that is the end of the road. Others have to repeat classes, or they take such a light load that they risk never earning a degree. Now, the leaders at Amesbury and Northern Essex have a better idea; they're going to bring college to the high school.
The Goal: College Readiness for All
Despite years of work on high school reform, the leap from high school to college is overwhelming for many students. The work is more rigorous, the cost is prohibitive, the culture is strange, and the support is lean. College remediation rates in the United States are high, and graduation rates are low (Conley, 2005; Hoffman, 2005).
Dual enrollment programs—where high school students take college courses—have been around for a long time. Because they are expensive for the schools, they tend to be small. And the top students, who are well on their way to college success, tend to fill all the dual enrollment and advanced placement classes while the rest of the students slide by.
There are some promising early college high schools in the United States where all students begin taking college courses as early as 9th grade and graduate with both a diploma and an associate's degree. These are interesting experiments, but they have limited applicability in large high schools. What is needed is model that would work in large traditional high schools. Amesbury provides that model.
Amesbury High School wants to reach more students, in particular the forgotten middle—those students in the middle two quartiles. They come every day, sit quietly in class, get average grades, and don't cause trouble. They have vague college aspirations, and they decline to enroll in the honors-level and advanced placement classes. As Swanson (2005) says, "Their parents and teachers are content that they are making it through and no alarm bells are going off. … They'll graduate, but won't be prepared for college" (p. 31).
The leaders of Amesbury High School decided they wanted all their students to start enjoying the college-readiness benefits of the dual enrollment and advanced placement courses that had been reserved for top-flight students. They wanted all students to be college-ready, no matter what their destiny after high school. Northern Essex Community College approached them with an idea to expand it dual-enrollment program. The leaders at both schools knew that academically average students would need lots of extra support to succeed with tough college-level coursework. They also knew the two institutions would have to work together closely to pull off this kind of enterprise. And they knew they would have to break some rules.
The Amesbury Model
The planning team, made up of two college administrators, the principal, the guidance counselor, and two district leaders, met monthly for more than a year to design their enhanced dual enrollment program. The team collaborated effectively with no mandate from the top, no start-up grant, no designated budget, and no sponsoring agency pushing an outside agenda. The collaborating groups have yet to sign a memorandum of agreement, write a vision plan, or even formally agree upon norms for meetings. While maintaining a healthy respect for their collective bargaining agreements, accreditation standards, state frameworks, and bottom-line budgets, the team members have defied traditions and stared down low expectations.
Last spring, the planning team recruited 31 academically average 9th graders, gave them the community college's placement exam, and signed them up for a dual-enrollment program that would provide nine college credits by the end of 10th grade. The group deliberately sidestepped the honors students and hunted down the quiet, often-overlooked students who were passing their courses but not setting the world on fire.
This first cohort is now taking a standard 10th grade sequence of courses, right alongside everyone else. Their courses in American literature and U.S. history, however, are "stretch" courses that have been integrated with the NECC college curriculums. In addition, these students take the College Success course on study skills and time management required for all NECC freshmen. All this is offered in a daily 80-minute block in which students receive peer support as well as adult encouragement. They take the remainder of their daily courses with rest of the 10th grade.
The participating high school and college teachers met in the summer of 2009 to blend their curriculums, taking care to address the Massachusetts standards for high school and the college accreditation standards. Now, they coteach these courses to the target 10th graders. The high school teacher works in the classroom every day; he is responsible for the English portion of the curriculum. The two college faculty members alternate days in the classroom; one addresses the history portion of the curriculum and the other the College Success curriculum.
With two teachers in the room every day, these 31 students are enjoying a student/teacher ratio that improves their odds of success. Further, the schedule gives students twice as much time in class as they would have in traditional college courses—up to 80 hours per course instead of the regular 40. Faculty support and student tutors are on hand to help struggling students. Students have noted that in these courses they read constantly, are required to write every day, and cannot slide by just doing substandard work. Still, every student was passing at the mid-year mark.
The team is already planning the recruitment effort for the second year with an enlarged target of 45 to 60 students. With the top 25 to 35 percent of Amesbury students already engaged in the college-credit courses, this will bring total student engagement close to 50 percent. The principal is relentless; his goal is to enroll every student in the early college program.
The current 10th grade cohort will be encouraged to take advantage of the many college-credit opportunities already available for students in grades 11 and 12; these include advanced placement courses, dual enrollment courses, online courses, and articulated courses (regular high school courses that closely match an NECC college course). In addition, at least one 11th grade course will be a "stretch" course similar to the 10th grade history and literature courses.
The target is for each student to take three more college courses in 11th grade and as many as four courses for college credit in 12th grade. Students who reach this target will have earned 30 credits, which equals a year in college. They will take some courses at the high school, some online, and still others on the college campus where they can become familiar with the college environment.
Overcoming the Obstacles
Why aren't more high schools expanding dual enrollment for the "forgotten middle"? Perhaps because of the formidable challenges of money, low expectations, and institutional constraints. Schools considering implementing a program like Amesbury's need to consider how they will overcome these obstacles.
First, there is the cost; dual enrollment courses are not cheap. At Northern Essex Community College, one course normally costs $351 for tuition and fees. The college has in the past used dual-enrollment funds to offer courses at no charge to a small number of students. However, dwindling state funding and unreliable grant support have forced NECC to charge an annual flat fee of $600 per student for all the dual-enrollment courses combined. The cost is not insignificant, but a local foundation is reaching out to help families as needed. With the addition of free advanced placement and articulated courses, most students will earn nine college credits in grade 10, nine more in grade 11, and as many as 12 in their senior year for a total of 30 credits for only $1,800, an overall cost to families of $60 per credit, substantially less than a traditional college education.
Supporting students for academic success is another challenge of this program. The stretch courses that extend learning over a year and low student/teacher ratios help, but they don't solve the problem. To support advanced placement (AP) students who struggle with high-stakes tests—like the AP exam normally required to gain college credit—NECC and Amesbury faculty are working together to integrate their curriculums so that students who earn passing grades for four quarters in an advanced placement course will get automatic credit at NECC, regardless of their AP exam score. Guidance counselors also work closely with parents to surround struggling students with support.
Sometimes, the biggest hurdle in the way of expanded dual enrollment programs is the college placement exam. Many colleges simply will not allow students to enroll in college coursework unless they can pass a placement exam. Amesbury students do take a placement exam, but college officials sit down with the school guidance counselor and examine the record of each applicant instead of relying solely on exam scores.
Adding an NECC faculty member to the classroom instead of replacing an Amesbury instructor prevented challenges from the teachers' union and enhanced mutual understanding between the schools. Another worry was whether other colleges would refuse to accept the dual enrollment credits, but NECC ensured that nothing on student transcripts would indicate that the dual enrollment classes were taken at a high school.
In so many ways, the potential benefits outweigh the challenges. Already, Northern Essex Community College is talking to three more area high schools that want to copy the Amesbury model. As more students move into this program, the boundary between high school and college will fade, and the students in the forgotten middle will find college success.
Conley, D. T. (2005). College knowledge: What it really takes for students to succeed and what we can do to get them ready (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Hoffman, N. (2005). Add and subtract: Dual enrollment as a state strategy to increase postsecondary success for underrepresented students. Boston: Jobs for the Future.
Swanson, M. C. (2005, November 2). It's time to focus on the forgotten middle. Education Week, 25, 31, 33.
Jack Leonard is a former high school principal and now Assistant Professor in the Graduate College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston; Jack.Leonard@umb.edu.
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