- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2001

Eli Zigas, a student at Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest, wanted to sample just how different collegiate life could be, so the 17-year-old District resident took a class on Western legal traditions at American University.

"The availability to take things further is really there," says Eli, who is deferring his college plans for a year but plans to begin at Grinnell College in Iowa after that. "I learned more than I would in most high school classes."

The transition from high school to college can be jarring for diploma-bearing teen-agers. In college, course loads bear down without mercy, professors don't track poor attendance figures, and students who fall behind must rely on themselves to stay afloat. Taking college classes while in high school allows students to accumulate course credits while at the same time getting used to the rigors of college life.

In the District, the High School-College Internship Program (Hi-scip) allows students to take classes at American, George Washington, Catholic, Howard and Georgetown, among other area universities, to supplement their educations and prepare for the next step in their academic careers. Many of the colleges offer the classes tuition-free.

Eli enrolled in the Hi-scip program while a junior at Wilson. He took the course on Western legal traditions during his first semester at American University, then studied tae kwon do in the spring. "It was one of the best classes I took all year," he says of the former.

Community colleges, with their accessibility and affordable tuition rates, also play a role in this trend.

The courses aren't Advanced Placement (AP) classes, which are

offered at many high schools and allow students to earn college credits by getting university-level instruction. They are, instead, the same classes college students take.

Though the exact number of high school students taking college courses is hard to track, the National Center for Educational Statistics in the District reported about 353,000 students younger than age 18 took at least one college course in 1997. The number of students applying for the Hi-scip program

doubled from

last year, growing to 154 for the just-completed school year. Of those students, 125 were accepted into the program.

David Owens, director of multicultural affairs at American University, says the bulk of the high school students participating with Hi-scip through his university continue on to college after receiving their diplomas. A small percentage defer their higher educations for a year.

Programs like Hi-scip allow high school students not only to take actual college courses and earn college credit, but to retain a degree of anonymity.

"No one has to know you're a high school student, not even your professor," Eli says. "That allows you to act like everyone else and not be awkward."

Alison Alvarez, currently enrolled at George Washington University, recalls how easily she fit in while attending classes at Clayton College & State University in Morrow, Ga., though she was younger than her peers.

"Nobody knew I was a high school student at the time," Miss Alvarez says.

It's not a stretch to envision the poised, bespectacled Miss Alvarez, now a 20-year-old senior, conquering college at an early age, but not all students possess the maturity to make the leap.

It helped that she attended a summer college-style program at Valdosta State University in Georgia under its Governor's Honors Program while she was still in high school. The session gave her a taste of college living, from dormitory food to the pressures of alcohol on campus.

Those initial lessons taught her how to thrive in a classroom without a safety net.

"If you screw up in high school, they're there to hold your hand," says Miss Alvarez, who drove to classes courtesy of a "clunker" she says her father patched up for such a purpose. "If somebody didn't understand something , we have to go back and explain it."

Still, she calls the transition a "shocking" one, in which a few tests can determine a student's academic fate.

She could have opted for a less stressful senior year, but Miss Alvarez says she knew her final high school months could be valuable if used properly.

"I thought it would be a great idea if I could get a jump on things," she says, looking back on the experience. "I would still participate in high school activities."

Her aggressive approach netted her 30 credits upon entering George Washington. "They took everything like I was a college student," Miss Alvarez says.

Those credits gave her the flexibility to sample courses she otherwise might not have had time to pursue. One such elective, a Japanese language class, persuaded her to make Japanese studies her second major.

"I didn't know what I was going to major in. I needed a lot of extra wiggle room," says Miss Alvarez, who also is majoring in computer science.

Programs such as Hi-scip, which began in 1975, aren't new, but Michael Carr, spokesman for the Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, says the enrollment of high schoolers in college classes is "a growing situation."

"The competitive edge of getting into the schools you want is part of it," Mr. Carr says of the trend, which he estimates took root five to 10 years ago. "In many places, it's taking the place of AP courses. It accomplishes the same thing.

"From our perspective, there isn't a downside," he says, citing mounting evidence that today's students are capable of tackling more diligent work levels.

"Public policy is pushing schools to offer more challenging course work," Mr. Carr says.

Craig Bass, a high school counselor specialist with the Montgomery County School System, contends that the trend is growing at a slower, yet steady pace, in part because of practical obstacles.

"The barrier still is logistics," Mr. Bass says. Many families, he notes as an example, can't spare an extra car for a teen-ager to commute from the high school to the local college.

"Kids go to college when they've reached the limit of what the course of study is in high school," he says. Or, the college may offer resources, such as metal-sculpture classes, that a high school can't match.

Some subjects, such as math and foreign languages, are best learned in sequential order, without too much lag time between classes.

Most colleges expect a minimum grade-point average that can range from 2.7 through 3.5 and even higher, Mr. Bass says.

The commitment requires more than simply superlative grades, though. "They really are taking on a challenge, going to two buildings every day," Mr. Bass says.

Academic prowess is the No. 1 priority, but desire ranks a close second, and maturity levels can't be discounted, he says. "They're going to be in there with college students. They have to be OK with that," he says.

Mr. Bass has spoken with students who say that hasn't been a problem. "They love being around an older crowd. It elevates their approach to learning," he says. "They come back as more mature students."

Mitch Luxenberg, president of the Fairfax County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, says the most common examples of high-schoolers tackling college work come when they outgrow available math courses.

"It's important for the school districts to be flexible enough for the students to be challenged," Mr. Luxenberg says.

He says some principals with whom he has spoken, though, worry about the emphasis on AP and college courses in today's high school environment.

"A lot more students are going off to college with a semester's worth of credit," he says, "but they may not be exposing themselves to a wide variety of electives ." Those classes could spark new interests or even new career possibilities for students.

One component of college life, the prevalence of alcohol on some campuses, is another lesson not found in a college syllabus, Miss Alvarez says.

High schoolers should be aware of the temptations offered on a campus, such as drinking, says Miss Alvarez, who says she abstains from such activities.

"You've never been put in that situation before," she says.

Miss Alvarez advises high school students considering college classes that they should keep their attendance records spotless.

"Just go to class and make yourself seen. Professors are a lot more understanding" of struggling students, she says, if they realize the students attend class diligently.

"It's not meant for everybody. I don't think parents should push them," Miss Alvarez says. "High school was hard enough alone."

Mr. Carr says the college classes represent the next logical progression for those students who may have outgrown their high school regimens.

"In every group, there's always going to be those kids who excel. This is another step in doing that," he says.

High school student Elizabeth Cox of Chula Vista, Calif., had taken every honors, AP and advanced course she could tackle by her senior year, so she spent her final high school months shuttling from Hilltop High School to nearby Southwestern Community College. At the college, she took classes in political science, health and communication.

"I wanted to see what real college was like," says Miss Cox, now 21.

"It was definitely a good adjustment to go from where I knew everybody to where I knew no one."

Miss Cox slipped into the classes without her fellow students knowing her high school status. One day, when she scored particularly well on a test, her professor brought her age into the open.

"Everybody turned their heads and looked," she recalls.

Taking those courses plus college-credit classes in high school helped her graduate in three years from George Washington University with a bachelor's degree in human services. Miss Cox is working on her master's degree

in public administration at the

FoggyBottom university.

As a high school senior, Alexis Larkin, 19, took an introductory psychology course at Millsaps College, a mile from her classes at William B. Murrah High School in Jackson, Miss. She also took classes at George Washington during her summer break between her junior and senior years in high school.

Miss Larkin says her senior year's schedule allowed for a morning window during which she took the psychology course.

"The responsibility was different," says Miss Larkin, who is deciding between political communications and political science as she enters her sophomore year at George Washington. "The teacher didn't take attendance. I needed to keep up with the readings myself."

She says she felt more acclimated to college when she arrived and had about 15 credits before ever stepping on campus as a freshman.

"If you're willing to put the work in, it's the way to go," she says.

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