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Irondale's new college-in-high-school program to be on display at town hall with Arne Duncan

Starting next fall, students at Irondale High School will have the opportunity to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate's degree.
Courtesy of Irondale High School
Starting next fall, students at Irondale High School will have the opportunity to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate's degree.

Everybody knows graduation is what happens when a person has endured a certain amount of high school, right?  

What if graduation were redefined not as the accumulation of a certain number of credits but as the point at which a young person was prepared, academically and in all other respects, to go on to college — and complete a degree?

At Mounds View Public Schools, educators are betting they know the answer: It would be nothing short of a paradigm shift.

Starting next fall, students at the district’s Irondale High School, located in New Brighton, will have on-site access to enough college-level classes offered in conjunction with Anoka-Ramsey Community College to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

'Cradle to career' pathways
The school’s first-of-its-kind early college program [PDF] will be on display Friday at a town hall meeting where U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Gov. Mark Dayton and state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius will discuss “cradle to career” pathways for success.

Courtesy of Irondale High School

Update: Earlier in the day, Duncan will visit Minneapolis’ South High School, where he will highlight another effort to connect more kids with college, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Rising college costs and student debt loads are on the secretary’s policy agenda.

Right now, 40 percent of Minnesota adults hold some post-secondary degree. By 2018, however, some 70 percent of jobs here are expected to require some education beyond high school. Adding to this widening skills gap, overall levels of educational attainment in the state are falling.

The upshot is clear. The achievement gap may get most of the ink, but Minnesota schools need to do a better job positioning students for college and career training.

Among the metro's top 10
To judge by socio-economic data, Mounds View is a long way from North Minneapolis. Serving students in Arden Hills, Mounds View, New Brighton, North Oaks, Roseville, Shoreview and Vadnais Heights, the district is among the metro area’s top 10 academically.

With 1,600 students, Irondale is a perennial fixture on the top-high-school lists published by national magazines. A full 99 percent of ninth-graders say they plan to go to college, and more than 90 percent graduate.

But it, too, faces challenges in terms of preparing students for college. A troubling number enroll but don’t finish, according to Irondale Principal Scott Gengler. Some are taken by surprise by the academic challenge, and some grow frustrated paying tuition to take prerequisites needed to get ready for coursework that counts toward a degree. 

“We know we are sending kids to college who are not prepared to complete it,” he said. “And we believe one of the best ways to ensure college readiness is to expose kids to college-level rigor [to] build up their skills.”

There’s nothing new about some high schoolers doing college-level coursework. Minnesota’s top students have long been able to earn college credit by passing tests at the end of high-level International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement courses, attending classes at a local college or university or taking “dual-credit” courses at their home schools.

But those who do typically have been at the top of their classes and presumably already college-bound.

And there are a growing number of programs aimed at exposing low-income students and immigrants, who are much more likely to be the first members of their family to consider college, to higher education.

Applying lessons learned to middle of the class
Mounds View is taking lessons gleaned from working with both groups and applying them to the middle of the class, for whom finishing the work necessary to earn a diploma often does not equate to college readiness.

The highest achievers will be able to earn an associate’s degree — tuition-free — while still in high school or to transfer the equivalent number of credits to the college of their choice. The middle of the pack, those in the 30th to 70th percent range, will get an idea how challenging college will be.

Coursework will not be watered down. Instead, Irondale students will have help from teachers who will have the backing and mentorship of Anoka-Ramsey faculty. High schoolers participating in early college will work with faculty to develop an individual four-year plan just as they would at a university.

All will graduate with enough foundational coursework and the confidence to complete a two- or four-year degree, even if some choose not to, said Gengler.

Most important, exposing kids to college work in ninth and 10th grades will exert downward pressure on middle grades.

A ninth-grader, 15-year-old Parth Patel is two or three years from the point where most students are encouraged to start getting ready for college. A math and science geek, his goal is an engineering degree from an Ivy League school. His parents can help some with tuition, and Patel expects to work. Determined, he has been taking every accelerated class he can squeeze in.

When Patel and his father looked at the early college materials Irondale sent home, they calculated he can bank enough credits to shave $10,000 off the cost of a bachelor’s degree. And he can start now, versus waiting for 11th grade, when other dual-credit programs start.

Free practice ACT tests
Other district initiatives will reinforce the focus. Last year Mounds View began offering the college admissions ACT test free in both its high schools during the school day to juniors. Not only does the trial run give kids a chance to bone up and try again, it gets younger students focused on qualifying for admission to the college of their choice.

Through the early college program, the district will administer a separate test to 10th graders that predicts ACT success.

The idea of talking about college — its value, accessibility, rigor and admissions requirements — often and early on is a common feature of so-called beat-the-odds schools that graduate virtually all of their impoverished students and send them to college.

The early college program will cost $65,000, which is being paid for by funds from the North Suburban Integration School District, whose future is far from guaranteed, and by compensatory revenue. If all goes well at Irondale, early college will be rolled out at the district’s other school, Mounds View High School.

Will the experiment be one that Secretary Duncan, a fanatic when it comes to pushing states to copy innovations that work, urges educators everywhere to emulate? Irondale probably won’t have to wait long for an answer.

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Comments (3)

A caveat I keep waiting to see in articles about this sort of thing is that college is now big business, and many institutions now operate on something far closer to a corporate model than an academic one. For-profit colleges, of course *are* following a corporate model, and their primary goal is to make money, not necessarily to prepare the next generation for citizenship and/or leadership. Many a non-profit college president spends the vast majority of his time fund-raising and cheerleading rather than overseeing academic programs. They want as many students as their institutions can handle because it’s tuition money in the bank.

That said, this is a very interesting experiment, and I hope you’ll come back to visit it periodically, Beth. Having worked in another state, and having been out of my own classroom as long as I have, I have no idea if it will prove worthwhile or not.

I’d also be interested in an examination of instructional methods, especially a comparison, if one seems valid. Public school teachers have been the whipping boys/girls for “boring” – and therefore ineffective – instruction for generations, but by a wide margin, the most boring and instructionally-hidebound teachers I’ve encountered, either as a genuine undergrad student myself or as a visiting professional on a field trip with my own high school students, were college professors. Teaching Assistants were very often far better actual teachers than the people who held the professorial title, most of whom were far more interested in their latest research or publishing project than in actually dealing with underclass students.

I did encounter exceptions – quite a few, actually, at the small state school where I got my Bachelor’s – but they were atypical, and they were still a small minority. Most college instruction still follows the Medieval model of the lecture, which is the only way to justify the expense of building lecture halls that hold two or three hundred students at a time at a big university. Not many use the Socratic method, and fewer still devise something unique on their own. I look forward to seeing how high school students respond – or don’t – to the prospect of being talked at for an hour as part of a large group. If they don’t like it in high school, they’ll like it even less as undergrads, when, eventually, they’ll be paying for the privilege.

Worth noting, as well, is the case of Parth Patel. With a name like that, my guess is that he comes from a family of first or second-generation immigrants, who have apparently not yet been seduced by American marketing expertise into expending most of their income and efforts on the trivial. In other words, compared to many of his contemporaries, Master Patel is *motivated.* Even the most mediocre of teachers can do a pretty good job with a student who is genuinely motivated, which is where most of the current push for “reform” misses the mark.

I echo all of Ray's (#1) comments and hope that you revisit this frequently. How and where and who will teach the classes? How do you get a critical mass? How is this different from PSEO? What do you do with the one person who is ready for Calc 3 and the one who is ready for, say, Differential Equations? Or similar in other fields of study? How this plays out/works for real students (whose needs/interests vary widely)is both fascinating and critical.

Good to see this program receiving attention, but for more than 20 years high schools have been developing cooperative programs with 2 and 4 year colleges and universities. A number of these programs don't require students to be at the top of their class.

The Center for School Change documented this in a report released about 10 days ago, and described in a Minnpost commentry:
www.minnpost.com/community_voices/2012/01/09/34207/dual_credit_courses_a...

Our report documented that the Minnesota Dual Credit Program with the largest number of participants is the College in the Schools/Concurrent Enrollment program development by 2 and 4 year colleges with high schools. We also showed that the # of students participating in most of the Dual Credit programs has increased over the last five years, as the # of high school students overall has declined.