Sunday, May 15, 2005

The District’s Bell Multicultural High School believes in educating a student for life by providing the resources to make education meaningful throughout life.

To that end, school officials go out of their way to keep students in school all four years. To discourage dropouts caused by a disaffection with studies, an innovative project was started last year allowing qualified students to graduate with their secondary school diploma and either an associate’s degree or two years of college credit.

Some 20 juniors are the pioneers in the venture, known formally as the Early College Program, which began last fall when selected students traveled once a week by bus and Metro to Northern Virginia Community College from their cramped building in Columbia Heights to take a freshman-level course in anatomy and physiology. The subject of the spring semester course was computer science.

It is the only fully public high school in the District to undertake such a program.

“To start raising the bar in high school helps make high school more relevant,” says Maria Tukeva, the longtime principal of Bell and founder of the Multicultural Career Intern Program (MCIP) that preceded the school. (The privately funded MCIP merged in the late 1980s with a public vocational school called the Bell Career Development Center — hence the school’s present name.)

“A couple of national studies have shown the kinds of courses offered [in high school] — except for the most advanced — are really watered down,” Ms. Tukeva adds. “A lot of high school students tune out because they feel they are not getting what they need. They say, ‘What am I doing here? Is it going to help me get a job or get into college?’”

Friendship Edison Public Charter School’s Collegiate Academy on Minnesota Avenue SE also is participating in the Early College Program, which is being funded nationally by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, working in partnership with 10 other nonprofits such as the National Council of La Raza and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

The 1,100-pupil academy has 70 students in grades nine, 10 and 11 enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia studying a variety of subjects. UDC teachers come to the campus on Minnesota Avenue NE to instruct ninth- and 10th-graders; 11th-graders go to UDC’s campus for classes.

“The idea is to remove the physical and intellectual barrier between high school and college and address all the inadequacies that currently exist in K through 12 education,” says Arsallah Shairzay, head of the academy’s Early College Program, admitting that such a tall order is not easily met.

Dropout rates after the first year of college average 30 percent nationally, he says, adding that rates often are considerably higher for black and other minority student populations. The academy is “100 percent African American,” he notes.

Some 660 students from 50 countries attend Bell, more than 95 percent of whom qualify for free lunch. Attendance rates and college acceptance rates are among the highest in the city. Bell attracts largely Hispanic pupils — many first-generation Americans, most of whose parents never have been to college and often not even high school.

Many, like Milton Hernandez, 18, who came to Washington from El Salvador without knowing much English, are expected to work part time or full time to help with expenses at home.

Many of the participating students have had to learn English on their own since it is not always spoken at home. Bell offers classes for students to study English as a second language and requires all students to be proficient in two languages before graduation. Native Spanish speakers take advanced courses.

Mr. Hernandez had been working full time — evenings and weekends — as a server on the Odyssey restaurant boat that plies the Potomac. He now works only part time but manages to carry five classes, one more than normal.

“Education is the most important thing in life,” he says to explain why he is in the Early College Program. “This is an opportunity to learn new things.” He plans to study business administration in college.

Bell’s students in the Early College Program are selected by recommendations of teachers and counselors; the noncompetitive program will expand next year to include grades 10 through 12. Eventually, students in grade nine and below will be involved, as well, with the youngest students receiving special college preparatory classes.

At neither Bell nor Friendship Edison do students pay for the college courses. Transportation money is given to participating Bell students, who, in conversation, express appreciation for the Early College Program on cost-saving grounds as well as the academic challenge. It means they will have fewer courses to pay for later when qualifying for a bachelor’s degree.

Damaris Valdez, 17, who came from Guatemala when she was 11, hopes to become a pediatrician. “It’s cheaper to do two years of community college work and then go on to a state university such as George Mason,” she says. Nebiyu Berhanu, 16, who arrived from Ethiopia two years ago, is eyeing a future as a biomedical engineering student at Johns Hopkins University. Morris Castro, 16, born in the United States of El Salvadoran parents, is interested in information technology.

“I got into this program because I wanted to see what it is like to be in college. To know how much work you have to do and how the teachers are,” says Narciza da Silva, 20, originally from Brazil, who sees herself studying business or law. Her parents speak Portuguese at home.

“I’ve learned that in high school, teachers always are willing to help you, but in college they just say it is your responsibility and it’s up to you to get a good grade. That is what people always told me, and I got scared so I wanted to do it before finishing high school.”

Director Rachael Holovach expects the program to stay funded indefinitely. It’s a pilot project so far, she emphasizes, since not enough students have been involved long enough to earn enough credits for an associate’s degree. “The movement across the country still is in its infancy,” she notes. “The biggest thing is having students take responsibility for their own learning and seeing their growth in learning to structure their study time and form study groups on their own.”

“We need to make proud this school,” volunteers Mr. Hernandez. “They have given us opportunity, and we don’t want to let them down.”

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