Perhaps no stage of American public education is as freighted with tradition and collective memory as high school. Which is not exactly why David Dugger is tinkering with it, but it’s one reason.
"Our big failing as a public school system is not believing that high school kids are capable of higher-level academic work. In other countries, students are doing much higher-level work in high school," said Dugger, director of the Early College Alliance at Eastern Michigan University, an effort to rethink the last years of public education in Michigan, at least for some students.
Early college students typically attend high school for five years rather than four, although some finish sooner. At the end of that time, they hold a high school diploma and either an associate’s degree, advanced technical certification in a job field, or 60 credits of transferrable college credit for a four-year school. All this is achieved as public education, meaning students pay nothing extra and the school’s costs are covered by the state’s per-pupil foundation allowance.
That includes the college credit hours, which is one reason most early college programs are affiliated with community colleges, which are generally less expensive than four-year schools. EMU is pricing its credit hours at a discounted rate for the Early College Alliance, which encompasses the six districts in the Washtenaw Intermediate School District that send students to the program.
The early college movement began about a decade ago, with help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as a way to shepherd at-risk students through high school and post-secondary education in a close, supportive environment, and many programs are aimed at those learners. Some version of this hybrid exists in 30 states and the District of Columbia, under a variety of state policy guidelines. As they spread, more are attracting top high-school students who want the extra challenge of more advanced classes, structured in such a way that they finish with substantial, debt-free college credit hours.
"Let the fast runners run," is how William Miller puts it. The executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators is a big booster of early college, in large part because it fits so many types of students who aren’t being well-served by existing programs.
"The traditional way for kids to do accelerated or advanced placement programs is, they take a class, take a test, and (depending on how they perform on it), get credit," said Miller, who calls the last year of high school "wasted time" for many students. "Dual enrollment makes more sense. It accelerates the process and dual-purposes the money."
Gov. Rick Snyder touted early college enrollment in his special message on education in 2011. State Superintendent Mike Flanagan also has argued for early college efforts as part of a rewrite of the state’s school aid funding system.
And Flanagan’s predecessor as state superintendent, Tom Watkins, is even more blunt in his call for change:
"I have called senior year, for those students ready to move forward, state-subsidized dating.
"We should stop tying anchors to kids, holding them back simply to protect the K-12 educational status quo. We need educators to embrace change and be educational transformers and pioneers."
Students in Washtenaw’s Early College Alliance have taken their credit hours to schools like Stanford and MIT, but most, about 70 percent, stay at EMU, Dugger said. That makes the tuition discount a good investment for the university, which is always looking to improve its graduation rate and reduce the amount of remediation they must provide for entering students, he said.
Oxford Community Schools, in Oakland Country, is experimenting with early college as well, and is kicking off its first year this fall. Superintendent William Skilling said the district’s program is affiliated with Lawrence Tech, Kettering University, Rochester College and Macomb and Oakland community colleges. It will rely in part on virtual, i.e. online, learning.
"What’s unique about what we have is that we also have an early high school program. We have kids starting in sixth grade doing high school-level courses," he said. Final enrollment is still being counted, but he believes the district will have at least 50 students enrolled.
Skilling said a typical Oxford early-college student might be one with the academic acumen for higher-level classes, but who still yearns for parts of the traditional high-school experience. They might take college-level engineering classes, but still play in the high-school band or orchestra.
Dugger assures his students that despite attending classes on the EMU campus, they’re still enrolled at their home high schools, and are hence eligible for all after-school extracurricular activities like sports and the arts.
The result is a powerful combination. Dugger speaks of "the power of the site," i.e., how the experience of attending high school on a college campus inspires students to mature and be more serious about their schoolwork. But the ability to still partake of the cultural institutions of high school -- proms, football, clubs -- keeps them rooted in that world, as well.
"You ask what sort of student this is for," Dugger said. "The only answer I have is, it’s for students who are looking for something different."
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.