- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2011

High school may seem like the longest four years of a teenager’s life. For students in Maine, it soon could be even longer.

Gov. Paul LePage last week ordered the creation of a 19-member task force and charged it with making recommendations to better prepare the state’s high school graduates for college. Among the possibilities: Five years of high school. Students would spend the extra year earning an associate’s degree or college credits to be counted toward a bachelor’s degree, all before high school graduation.

“We need to give students some clear options … and give them the start they need,” the Republican governor told the Associated Press.

While some high schools in Maine already offer college courses, Mr. LePage’s proposal would implement the idea statewide. He based his plan on efforts already under way in North Carolina, which gives many students the option of staying in high school for a fifth year as part of the state’s New Schools Project (NSP).

The project, a government initiative that received startup money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other supporters, has 74 “early college high schools” across the state, most located on college campuses.

For students and parents, the approach is attractive because it offers a free head start on a college education. The NSP is geared toward “first-generation” college students, many of whom come from low-income families that can’t afford the ever-rising cost of tuition, said NSP President Tony Habit.

“It’s changing the conversation in our state,” Mr. Habit told The Washington Times. “I think people are searching for solutions. If students aren’t succeeding, the question is, what changes do adults have to make to ensure their success?”

Mr. Habit said high schools that participate in the five-year programs in North Carolina have graduation rates of about 95 percent, some as high as 100 percent. The state’s overall high school graduation rate was 74.2 percent in 2009-10, the most recent figures available, according to the state’s Department of Public Instruction.

Other college/high school hybrids are in place in 28 states and the District, with 230 schools serving more than 50,000 students nationwide, according to the Early College High School Initiative, a division of the nonprofit Jobs for the Future, which advocates education reform and work-force development.

“People have increasingly understood that there’s a disconnect between the standards and expectations of high school and college,” said Joel Vargas, vice president of Jobs for the Future’s High School Through College Division. “[These programs] are bridging that divide.”

The disconnect, Mr. Vargas said, often leaves students unprepared for college. Many are forced to spend valuable time in remedial classes, wasting thousands of dollars in tuition to relearn high school concepts.

In most college/high school systems, school districts or states partner with colleges and universities - like the North Carolina system - to create what Mr. Vargas called a “seamless transition.” Students have the chance to meet professors and study college textbooks while still in high school, increasing their chances of completing college, he added.

“This approach, if it’s done well in a partnership, lets [colleges and high schools] take some joint responsibility for these young people. It’s an investment,” Mr. Vargas said.

The concept has drawn praise from the Obama administration. In an address earlier this year recognizing Early College High School Week, President Obama called five-year high schools and other college/high school combinations “innovative solutions” to the problems of limited college access and low graduation rates.

“Projects like the Early College High School Initiative help ensure all our students can succeed,” Mr. Obama said.

In Maine, however, the idea has met some resistance from lawmakers. State Sen. Justin Alfond, a Democrat, told the AP that Mr. LePage’s task force is simply the fulfillment of “a campaign promise,” not the prescription for education reform.

“I don’t believe this will have the game-changing effect that we need here in Maine,” he said.

The state’s task force is expected to begin its work this month and to make recommendations no later than Dec. 1.