- Associated Press - Sunday, December 21, 2014

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) - Kalamazoo County’s nine school districts are launching a new program in which students can earn a degree or certificate from Kalamazoo Valley Community College during a “13th grade” in high school.

Known as Early/Middle College, tuition and fees will be paid by school districts, which will collect the state’s per-pupil foundation allowance for those students, school superintendents told the Kalamazoo Gazette (https://bit.ly/1slTeR7 ).

The Schoolcraft and Gull Lake school districts are piloting the program this school year. It is tentatively scheduled for implementation in fall 2015 at the other seven districts — Kalamazoo, Portage, Vicksburg, Comstock, Parchment, Galesburg-Augusta and Climax-Scotts — pending approval of the individual school boards, which is currently under way.

“Since college education is more important and more expensive than ever, we believe this will be a potentially powerful option for students,” said David Campbell, superintendent of the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency.

In essence, the superintendents said, the Early/Middle College program is an expansion of dual enrollment, the program that allows Michigan high school students to take college classes for free. It also builds on Kalamazoo County’s Education for Employment and Education for the Arts, which offer career and technical education classes.

The big difference from dual enrollment and EFE/EFA: Rather than take random classes for college credit, Early/Middle College students will focus on a specific program of study. Also, they will delay high school graduation for a year, and they will use that fifth year of high school to potentially earn an associate’s degree or vocational certificate from KVCC.

While it will take those students five years to graduate high school, once they do, they’ll be ready to either enter the workforce in a skilled trade or transfer to a four-year college as a junior.

Early/Middle College initially will offer seven programs of study: An associate’s degree for students transferring to a four-year college; an associate’s degree in graphic design or machine-tool technology; a certificate in graphic design or machine-tool technology, and a certificate of completion to be a welder or personal computer support technician.

The programs for welders, machinists, computer technicians and graphic designers were chosen based on local job demand, school officials said.

“Local manufacturers and businesses are very interested in this,” said Deb Miller, who oversees EFE. “We’re keeping them in the loop.”

Carrie Pickett-Erway, president/CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, said she and others see Early/Middle College as a critical part of efforts to create a “cradle-to-career” education system in Kalamazoo County.

“This is a big moment for the community,” Pickett-Erway said. “It’s very exciting.”

The program “is a direct path from high school to college to jobs in high demand,” Pickett-Erway said.

It’s also a big deal for students who want to earn a four-year degree, she said.

“Especially for kids without access to The Kalamazoo Promise, this is huge,” she said. “It gives kids up to two years of college they don’t have to pay for. That’s a huge head start.”

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Campbell and Pickett-Erway said local officials have talked for years about having an Early/Middle College here.

EMC “is something many people have been trying to bring to life for almost 10 years, but it’s always gotten stalled at different points because of funding or infrastructure issues,” she said.

What made a difference this time: The Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo, which is operated through the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, kicked in $150,000 for the planning process, and KVCC, KRESA and the Lumina Foundation also offered support.

That paid for people to work on putting the necessary pieces in place. The main point person has been Jim Murphy, who works for KRESA.

A big part of the process is coordinating among nine school districts with different ideas of how EMC would best work in their district, as well as working with KVCC and the EFE/EFA programs.

“It’s a difficult thing to get off the ground,” Campbell said.

He said the program is being “customized” and will operate a little differently in each high school.

But in general, most students will enter the Early/Middle College program as a sophomore by taking a college success strategies course at their home high school.

That course, which is required for entrance into EMC, will teach the study skills that students need for college-level classes — such as how to take notes and study effectively for a test.

EMC students would then take dual-enrollment classes at KVCC or specific courses that offer college credit through EFE and EFA during their junior and senior year, school officials said.

The students’ fifth year of high school would be mainly spent at KVCC finishing up their college program of study, although students could take classes such at their home high school, such as band or choir.

While they are taking college classes, students must participate in “seminar” — a regular meeting of EMC students to talk about their experiences and share tips and resources. Each EMC student also will be assigned a mentor, who will help oversee their progress.

The college strategies class, seminar meetings and mentors are considered key to helping teenagers make the transition to higher education and stay on track.

Students can enter the EMC program after sophomore year, but they are still required to take the college strategies class first and may not be able to finish the college program by the end of their fifth year of high school.

The associate’s degree programs require students to earn 62 credit hours, which is equivalent to four or five full-time semesters. The certificate programs run between 10 and 32 hours.

One downside for EMC students: They will not be able to graduate officially with their class, because they must remain high school students to qualify for funding during the “13th grade.” However, some of the superintendents said they still may allow the EMC to participate in commencement ceremonies with their peers.

“It could be an issue, but there is a difference between walking (at commencement) and graduating,” said Michael Rice, superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools.

To get the funding for the additional year of high school, KRESA and the local school districts had to get the approval of the Michigan Department of Education. The state department signed off on the county’s EMC plan in July.

Washtenaw County has had an Early/Middle College for years, but now such programs “are popping up all over the place,” Campbell said, thanks to changes in state regulations that make it easier for students to qualify for dual enrollment during a fifth year of high school.

“The whole concept is to stretch the system” of public education, Campbell said. “We’ve in effect added a grade for 4-year-olds by increasing funding for preschool. Now we’re adding a 13th grade.”

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For all the complications in establishing and implementing the framework, local officials say EMC should help address a variety of concerns — from the high school dropout rate, to college enrollment and completion, to college costs.

Consider state data on the Kalamazoo County teenagers who started high school in 2007.

A quarter did not graduate with the Class of 2011. Two years later, 20 percent still lacked a high school diploma.

Among those who graduated high school in 2011, 72 percent started college but only half had earned 24 credits — a year of college classes — by fall 2013.

And those who do graduate college can accumulate substantial debt: 63 percent of people who received a bachelor’s degree from a Michigan college in 2013 had student loans, and their debt averaged $29,583, according to the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit based in California.

Yet there is plenty of evidence that education is linked to life success. Compared to people without college degrees, college graduates have a lower rate of unemployment, are less likely to enroll in government assistance programs such as food stamps and are more likely to volunteer in their community.

They also have higher wages. In 2013, millennials with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $45,500, compared to $28,000 for those with only a high school diploma, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

Even an associate’s degree can make a significant difference in earnings.

In Kalamazoo County, adults without a high school diploma average $15,766 in annual earnings, compared to $23,396 for a high school graduate and $30,337 for an individual with some college or an associate’s degree, according to figures provided by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Not only does EMC bring down college costs, it is also a strategy to make school more interesting and relevant to teenagers.

“We surely hope to increase high school and college completion rates” by getting teenagers into a program that fits their interests at an earlier age and by providing them with a support system as they take college colleges, Campbell said.

Instead of sitting in a “boring” class, students in EMC will be taking classes directly applicable to a future career. It’s especially enticing for students who aren’t academically inclined but might flourish in a hands-on class such as welding or graphic design.

In addition, EMC offers a gentler transition between high school and higher education than the traditional route.

“We’re trying to help kids who are not college bound right now,” Campbell said. “Let’s create a good path for them, so they can get a good-paying job.

“We feel a moral imperative to stretch things and offer more opportunities to kids.”

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Information from: Kalamazoo Gazette, https://www.mlive.com/kalamazoo

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