Early Access to College
The increasing option of dual enrollment in school districts nationwide is raising the horizon for high schoolers
BY MERRI ROSENBERG/School Administrator, November 2018

Rising juniors in Henrico County, Va., paid an overnight campus visit to James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., learning about dorm life, dining options and team building.
Last spring, Brooke Clendenning graduated from Meadowbrook High School in Byesville, Ohio, a rural community 75 miles east of Columbus. She did so with 30 college credits under her belt, earned in the dual enrollment program established in 2010 by the Rolling Hills Local School District.

In September, she started her studies at Ohio State University with sophomore standing.

For Clendenning, a first-generation college student from a family of modest means, dual enrollment opportunities opened the door to college and reshaped her future. Assuming she graduates from Ohio State in three years, the college credits earned in high school will have saved her thousands of dollars.

Her accomplishment while impressive is no longer singular. In recent decades, dual credit programs are popping up everywhere. School districts as small as Troy, Mont., with 400 students in K-12, and as large as Orange County, Fla., with its 207,000 students, have expanded opportunities for ambitious high school students to earn college credits at little to no extra cost to those enrolled. In Henrico County, Va., students pay $50 per college course plus a $20 program fee.

Clendenning’s story and many others lend insights on the progress of dual enrollment efforts in various districts. Superintendents and central-office leaders offer advice on course programming, partnering with colleges, teacher buy-in, student advising and teacher support systems.

Rural Collaborative
Growing up in a small, rural school community no longer means high school students need sacrifice on their higher ambitions.

About 500 high school students in southeastern Ohio are part of college classes in a dual enrollment program managed since 2010 by the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative. The latter is a consortium of 21 rural districts.

“Our kids are bright and capable and will need to compete for jobs in a global market,” says Ryan Caldwell, superintendent of the 1,610-student Rolling Hills Local School District and a member of the collaborative. “The majority of our students graduate with at least a year of college credit.”

That has had a significant impact on postsecondary aspirations of Rolling Hills graduates. In 2013, 28 percent of the graduating seniors went on to enroll in an associate or bachelor’s degree program. By 2016, 47 percent were pursuing college degrees.

With the limited financial resources of families, geographic challenges and a community where the payoff of higher education is not fully valued, Caldwell recognized the advantage of banding together with other small districts in similar circumstances.

In Ohio, the state legislature requires high schools to pay for the college classes offered to high school students. The collaboration enables districts to limit costs by sharing certified teachers to deliver college-level classes, which are offered on campus or through distance learning.

The collaborative has benefitted from outside funds, such as a $15 million state grant that enabled the Rolling Hills School District to transform the library at Meadowbrook High School into a dedicated space for dual enrollment classes.

Suburban Cohort
Rolling Hills’ small size provides dual credit students with what the superintendent considers a natural cohort with partnering schools. In contrast, larger districts such as the 50,000-student Henrico County Public Schools in the suburbs of Richmond, Va., made a deliberate decision seven years ago to create its own dual enrollment program around cohorts.

“We call our approach to dual credit a ‘degree-seeking cohort model,’” says Sheralyne R. Tierseron, director of the Advance College Academy for Social Sciences at J.R. Tucker High School in Richmond. Henrico’s model encourages students to complete both a high school diploma and an associate degree by the time they finish 12th grade.

About 50 students form the cohort starting in 9th grade. For those first two years, the students take honors-level and Advanced Placement classes to prepare them for the college courses in English, math and foreign language that begin in 11th grade.

“We are trying to create a guided pathway for students,” says Miles McCrimmon, director of college academies at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond. “Our whole goal is producing graduates who can function in a 300- to 400-level course at the age of 18.”

More than 90 percent of those in the cohort enroll in a four-year college or university after their high school graduation. To date, 163 students have graduated high school with an associate degree in the social sciences, which was the chosen field because it most closely mirrors the core coursework completed during the first two years of college.

The college offerings are consolidated at a single high school in Henrico County where the teachers who carry the proper credentials for postsecondary instruction are clustered. The school district adjusted senior-year semesters so participating students could participate in college commencement exercises.

District administrators work with staff at Reynolds to determine how many minutes class sessions would need to qualify as three-, four- or five-credit courses. The community college adjusted the start and end dates of its calendar to align with the school district.

Florida’s Orange County Public Schools stage an annual Decision Day when college-bound seniors sign their names to a school banner indicating their commitment to a postsecondary institution.

Urban Abundance
In Florida’s Orange County Public Schools, a district with about 207,000 students, there’s an abundance of college-level options for students on top of Advanced Placement.

“We provide diverse opportunities for students,” says Superintendent Barbara Jenkins. “They can take college courses, earn industry certifications, achieve bi-literacy, enroll in specialized magnet programs and more. All of these pathways represent a continuum for learning and achieving success in college, career and life.”

Last year, more than 70 graduating seniors from 17 high schools in the district earned their associate degrees through the dual enrollment program. That number doubled from the previous year.

The Orange County students can take up to four courses on campus during the fall and spring semesters at Valencia Community College in Orlando or up to four online courses.

The school district builds job pathways for students by ensuring course options directly aligned with local industry needs in information technology, health care, transportation, logistics and other fields, says Michael Armbruster, associate superintendent for career and technical education in Orange County Public Schools.

Advisory committees of industry partners help drive the programs and curriculum to meet the needs of the local workforce. “This past year, seniors in our gaming and simulation program were hired before [high school graduation],” Armbruster adds. “They completed their (required) high school courses online so they could go to work before the school year ended.”

While students aren’t slotted into prescribed courses, says Latishua Lewis, director of dual enrollment at Valencia College, “they’re taking courses they need to graduate, though not heavy in math. The No. 1 priority is meeting high school requirements. It’s also more personalized, so students could graduate from high school or get an associate degree.”

Cultural Change
Creating a college-going culture in a school system requires student, family and faculty buy-in, and that takes time.

Sometimes superintendents may be tempted to plan and launch a dual enrollment program for the next school year, says McCrimmon of Reynolds Community College in Richmond, “but two to three years to build a credentialed faculty cohort will be time well-invested.”

The culture shift is not unsubstantial, according to Ryan Caldwell, superintendent of the Rolling Hills Local School District in Ohio.

“We wanted to break the cycle of students’ feeling ‘I didn’t think I was college material,’ or ‘(college) wasn’t important in my family,’” he says. “By taking college courses and having great success and by going on to college, the kids are owning their future. It feeds into the whole community. It’s contagious. People feel pride.”

At Meadowbrook High School, 93 students completed more than 50 different college courses in 2017-18. Students collectively earned more than 2,300 college credit hours, meaning in some instances they depart high school with two years of college credits, Caldwell says.

Ryan Caldwell (rear), superintendent of Ohio’s Rolling Hills Local School District, founded a collaborative of 21 rural districts that share qualified teachers to run dual enrollment courses.
Teacher Support
Getting teachers on board for a dual enrollment program can be one of the biggest hurdles, says Jacob Francom, superintendent of Troy Public Schools in the rural northwestern corner of Montana. Troy’s high school has 127 students.

“It was a challenge at first to get buy-in from teachers since there were no incentives,” Francom says. “We worked with the local teachers’ union to get a bonus added to the agreement for teachers who teach these dual credit courses.”

Beyond financial incentives, teachers need professional development and proper credentialing. The local college, Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Mont., provides mentors for these teachers to help them make the transition from teaching a high school class to a college course.

Frequently, the college partners in Troy and elsewhere provide training or orientation for the high school teachers.

Strategic Advising
The most carefully designed dual enrollment programs won’t entice high schoolers to sign up unless there’s a strong advising system in place and marketing that’s targeted to families and students.

“We found [only] 10 percent of our students were participating in dual enrollment initially,” said Latashia Edwards, college transition counselor for the Orange County, Fla., Public Schools, one of the country’s largest districts. The district ramped up its promotion of the college-level offerings and improved its student advising on this front to increase enrollment. Students in the career and technical programs receive transportation between the college campus and their home school.

In Henrico County, Va., the school district is paying attention to the performance of those students who have enrolled in postsecondary studies, thanks to a school counselor and an on-site career counselor that Reynolds Community College provides. They monitor students’ attendance and grades in their college courses and raise concerns when war-ranted. The district has academic coaches help students in the cohort transition into the higher demands of college-prep work in 11th and 12th grade and then with the transition to college.

“I’m always tracking grades, making sure students are keeping on track emotionally and academically,” says Tierseron, who directs the Advance College Academy in Henrico County. “Parents are made aware that the first semester of college can be hard for [typical first-year students], who may not ask for help from their professors.”

Providing appropriate advising to every student is a challenge in a large district like Florida’s Orange County. The district hired five college transition counselors in 2013-14 to “train the high school counselors to help students get on a pathway,” says Mary Bridges, senior director of student services in the Orange County Public Schools.

That timely support helped Queeny José, a 2018 high school graduate in Orange County, Fla. After consulting with the college transition counselor, José took dual enrollment courses, as well as classes in career and technical education and AP courses during her four years of high school. She entered the University of Florida this fall and hopes to apply to medical school.

Success stories like José’s don’t happen by leaving it up to students to take advantage of dual enrollment opportunities. If there is a “secret sauce” to make these programs work effectively, what school districts need in place from the start are strong systems of advising, formal monitoring of student progress, attention to the needs of high school teachers leading college courses and ongoing communication with college partners and families of students.

MERRI ROSENBERG is a freelance education writer in Ardsley, N.Y.