College Pathways in the Rural Heartland
A high school and a community college in central Illinois collaborate on building three pathways to make postsecondary education a reality for all
BY ANDREW S. WISE AND SARAH J. DIEL-HUNT/School Administrator, November 2018

Andrew Wise (left), superintendent of Olympia Community Unit School District 16 in Illinois, with Kyle, a student who earned enough college credits in a dual enrollment program to land a job with the fire department in Bloomington, Ill.
In the rural heartland of central Illinois sits Olympia High School, serving students from nine villages that span five counties and 377 square miles, mostly farmland. Much like rural high schools everywhere, Olympia’s enrollment has been on the decline, while poverty has increased, making the preparation of students for postsecondary studies ever more difficult.

Meanwhile, Olympia’s community college, Heartland, also has seen its enrollment drop since 2012 after two decades of expansive growth that led to a building campaign. Heartland serves 5,000 full-time students and a non-credit student population exceeding 12,000.

During this same period, Advance Illinois, an independent advocacy group for K-12 education, launched its 60 by 25 campaign to push for 60 percent of Illinois residents to hold a college or career credential by 2025, which would be a significant gain from the current 40 percent.

New challenges often provide new opportunities. Five years ago, Olympia and Heartland jointly developed an accessible, innovative and inclusive dual enrollment program to provide early college opportunities for all secondary school students. Our goal: Increase significantly the percentage of high school graduates who will go on to complete a post-secondary certificate or degree program in college.

Three Options
While our program continues to evolve, what follows is a description of the early college opportunities we have created for the students at Olympia High School, where the enrollment in grades 9-12 this year is 530. The program asks students to identify a pathway of interest and make related course selections, though students may move between pathways at any point.

» GENERAL EDUCATION/TRANSFER PATHWAY. This is for students who excel in their high school coursework and meet college-level readiness benchmarks and placements. They have access to various general education courses at Heartland Community College that are applicable for transfers to two- or four-year colleges and universities. These are available on top of the nine Advanced Placement courses offered at Olympia. Ambitious students can complete more than 24 general education college credits before finishing high school.

» APPLIED DEGREE PATHWAY. This is designed for students with interests in applied fields such as allied health, information technology, digital media and industrial technology. Olympia, Heartland and the nearby Bloomington Area Career Center offer introductory college courses on welding and computer networking and courses leading to certification as emergency medical technicians and nursing assistants. Students need not meet college-level writing or math placements to be eligible for these courses, which opens up post-secondary learning for high school students who might not otherwise consider the opportunity.

» COLLEGE READINESS PATHWAY. This is for students at risk of falling short of graduating high school, for whom early college options might seem out of the question. Connecting these students to college establishes the confidence and mindset they will need for postsecondary education. Olympia and Heartland’s partnership embeds precollege coursework into the senior year for these students.

Alongside successful completion of the precollege classes, students on this pathway can enroll in short-term, work-ready courses offered by Heartland (e.g. pharmacy technician, phlebotomy, EKG tech and facilities maintenance). Some of these courses will provide college-transcripted credits, and all of them will equip students to enter the workforce with skills they need to begin a career.

This pathway also enables them to continue their education at Heartland after graduation, enrolling in on-level, credit-bearing classes and bypassing the remedial classes that deter admittance and progress of so many at-risk pre-college students. Instead of a high school diploma or GED being the end of the road, postsecondary education now becomes an attainable next step for students who once believed college was intended for a select group of students.

Beyond the core academics, the curriculum in this pathway tries to build students’ social-emotional skills, applicable to the workforce.

Making It Happen
Creating robust and diverse early college pathways requires a strong collaborative partnership between the high school and community college. (See related story.) It also requires the high school to leverage its resources and deploy creative means to ensure students have access to educational opportunities that will help them gain meaningful and sustainable employment.

Today, more than 25 percent of Olympia High School’s courses are considered early college offerings. While Olympia is a small, rural high school, the availability of college credits rivals what is available at larger high schools in Illinois. This has been accomplished by:

» Increasing the number of teachers at the high school who can teach college courses. We’ve done this by (1) using teachers who meet college qualifications to offer multiple college courses in their area; (2) hiring with an eye toward increasing college course offerings; and (3) providing encouragement and incentives for current teachers to attain the qualifications to teach college courses.

» Strategically combining Advanced Placement coursework that complements dual credit coursework to expand course offerings.

» Leveraging partnerships with the local career center in Bloomington to offer dual enrollment courses in applied/technical areas.

» Offering college success courses in the high school that can be taught by teachers with graduate credentials in various fields, making them qualified to teach college-level courses.

» Partnering with the community college to offer college credentials/short-term vocational courses.

» Changing the paradigm from “college for some” to “postsecondary for all,” aligning students’ interests with college career pathways, embracing flexible delivery and requiring each student to participate in a job shadowing or an internship prior to graduation.

A Success Story
The Olympia/Heartland partnership now is exploring the possibility of starting college-level advisement earlier in students’ high school careers to ease the transition into postsecondary education.

Even so, the success stories abound. They are coming from students who have been able to save thousands of dollars in college tuition by reducing the time needed to complete their degrees and from students who never before considered themselves to be “college material” until they experienced early success.

Kyle, who graduated last spring from Olympia, is a good example of someone in the latter category. As a sophomore, he learned of the Olympia/Heartland partnership for dual enrollment, certification programs and internships. Realizing that the traditional 11th- and 12th-grade schedule would not move him closer to reaching his dream of becoming a firefighter, Kyle and his counselors created a schedule for his junior and senior years that incorporated dual enrollment classes in fire science and emergency medical technician training. His coursework prepared him for certification exams to become a firefighter and EMT. A semester-long internship in his senior year with the nearby Normal Fire Department gave Kyle a first chance to serve his community.

As a result of these experiences and Kyle’s hard work, he came in ahead of others his age when interviewing with the Dale Township Fire District, which now employs him. His earnings help him pay for his current college coursework as he gains credits toward his associate degree and builds his knowledge and skills toward becoming a paramedic.

Getting Started
For superintendents, the first step toward a higher education partnership is changing your school district’s paradigm from “college for some” to “postsecondary education for all.” Postsecondary education can take many forms. It can occur in many locations and take place throughout the entirety of a student’s life. It means high schools must commit to growing each student’s self-confidence, passion for learning and growth mindset.

Engaging in AASA’s Redefining Ready! process and having the board of education approve a resolution can create a solid foundation on which to build.

Then, district leadership can focus on building relationships with colleges, universities, work development centers, chambers of commerce, military branches, legislative councils, businesses and other stakeholders with a vested interest in developing future citizens.

When stakeholders — especially in rural areas like ours — rally around a common purpose of helping each student travel the road to postsecondary education and career, we will make a real difference in our future workforce, creating individuals who are passionate about their craft, skilled in their trade and rooted in lifelong learning.

ANDREW WISE is superintendent of Olympia Community Unit School District 16 in Stanford, Ill. SARAH DIEL-HUNT is associate vice president for academic affairs at Heartland Community College in Normal, Ill.