Going to college while in high school

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S no secret that by the time they get to high school, many students are bored or restless. Many can't wait to get out. Many with high aptitude perform poorly. Educators are constantly on the lookout for ways to inspire these students - to ensure that the critical high school years aren't wasted.

One of the more daring new plans has come from the Minnesota legislature. In 1985, Minnesota offered every 11th and 12th grader in the state the option of going to college - full or part time - for free. State and local money allotted per pupil - up to $3,000 - could be transferred to schools ranging from local community colleges to the state university system. More than 4,000 students have signed on. Higher grades result

TWO weeks ago, the Minnesota Department of Education released figures from a study of the first participants in the Postsecondary Options Program, as it's known: 90 percent said they learned more in college than in high school. Ninety-five percent were ``satisfied,'' or ``very satisfied.'' And though these 11th and 12th graders did not come from the top of their class, they averaged higher scores in the college courses they took than entering freshmen as a whole.

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Not only does the options program expose students to serious academic studies and help them see themselves in a new light, say proponents, it has also spurred high schools to improve.

``This program is providing access to opportunity without building any new buildings, hiring more teachers or administrators,'' says school official Robert Wodel.

The project director, Jesse Montano, has received calls from around the country: ``The state of Maine already has legislation to work out a similar plan,'' she says. Not just for `high achievers'

BOTH low- and high-achieving students are attracted to the program. Rachel Minor, for example, has been going to the University of Minnesota full time for two years. She graduates from high school in White Bear Lake this June, and will enter UMinn in the fall - as a junior. ``What I like about college is the responsibility,'' she says. ``You can't just turn your homework in and get an `A.' You have to learn the information.''

By contrast, Ann Breault comes from an inner-city welfare family. No one in her family had ever been past high school. When Beault's teacher urged her to take a class at a local community college, she balked at first. ``I'd never done anything like that before.'' And the four-mile trip seemed a bit frightening. But the experience, and the A-minus she made, ``changed'' her sense of what was possible.

But it's not the gifted or special-needs student who benefits most from the Minnesota plan. It's the average student who, in several recent studies, has been shown to be the one most apt to get lost in high school.

That didn't happen to David Allen. A ``mostly C's and B's'' student, Allen took a junior-level political analysis course at UMinn. His own high school had no comparable course. ``Politics is the one subject I do well - that's why they let me in.''

After considerable trepidation and effort, he earned a B-plus. But the education Allen got simply taking part in the options program was as valuable as what he learned about politics, he says: ``I had to figure everything out - work with my parents, check out the courses, register - it was really something. ... College taught me about responsibility.'' A chance to excel

THE popular students, the athletes, student council members, and academic whizzes are the ones usually identified with excellence in high school. ``Going to college gives the ordinary person a chance to excel,'' Allen says.

When first announced, the plan panicked principals and superintendents. They imagined a mass exodus of students - and dollars - from their schools. This never happened. Only about 5 percent of the seniors opt for the plan; 30 percent take only one course. School districts have lost only one tenth of one percent of their budget.

Still some principals feel the program is disruptive; others say they can't afford to lose even a little money. The teacher unions have been nervous. Some students find, too, that they aren't ready for college work.

But the program has far more advocates than detractors. Its unique approach, versatility, and the fact that it's aimed at all types of students, has earned it support from such diverse groups as the state Parent-Teacher Association, community action groups, the Minnesota Business League, and the League of Women Voters.

What Joe Nathan, consultant to the National Governors' Association Task Force on Education, likes about the plan is its implicit demand that public high schools rethink their approach - to not be satisfied with ``education as usual.'' He reports a flurry of inquiries from high schools for help in starting similar courses.

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