When high school isn't working
BURLINGTON, VT. — Bette Matkowski's epiphany about reaching disengaged high-schoolers grew out of her experience with her daughter Anne - a bright girl who nonetheless found herself bored, restless, and failing high school. "She had this active intellectual life but it just wasn't in school," says Ms. Matkowski.
Anne eventually went to boarding school, where a more-challenging curriculum and smaller classes reconnected her with academics. And that's when it hit Matkowski, a regional director of the Community College of Vermont in Burlington: Why not put bright but struggling high-schoolers into
community-college classes? The same things that helped her daughter - tougher work, a better student-teacher ratio, a more-motivated student body -could boost other teens as well.
Today, CCV has 90 students under the age of 18. That's only 2 percent of its 4,700-student enrollment, but the college is developing programs with several local high schools and would like to see the figure rise to several hundred.
Traditional high school is an overly structured, age-segregated experience that just doesn't work for some students, say its critics, and it shouldn't be the only alternative available to adolescents.
In 1997, Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., proposed abolishing the American high school, calling it a "very destructive environment," especially for average and below-average students. Among other proposals, Dr. Botstein suggests that many students, at the age of 16, would benefit from community-college classes.
"Community colleges are flexible and are really designed to meet individual needs," says George Salembier, associate professor of education at the University of Vermont, and a member of a Vermont-based think tank that helped create some of the CCV programs. "It's a powerful way to get kids involved in higher education."
Star status isn't necessary
Few at CCV would dispute that. The college, of course, is interested in the highly motivated teen who might benefit from jumping into college classes early. But that's not the kind of kid the school principally hopes to benefit.
Instead, it's after more students like 16-year-old Jennifer Martin.
"I was failing all my classes and just wasn't going," says Jennifer of her experience at a public high school. "I was really bored there and asked for help, but never got it."
After she dropped out, a tutor suggested she try a college class. (At CCV a high school diploma is not required for entrance.) She signed up for basic algebra and an introductory humanities class at CCV and discovered that she loved school.
"Everybody was so willing to talk and very supportive," she says of her classmates. "In high school they were just all so immature."
The bottom line
About 21 states today have bridge programs that allow high school students to take college courses. But financing is a major constraint. Only 11 offer any financial assistance. What Professor Salembier would like to see in Vermont would be not only state aid to help high-schoolers pay college tuition, but also a dual-enrollment program that would allow teens in college classes to receive high school and college course credit simultaneously.
Salembier says there is currently legislative interest in both ideas and he believes they will become realities within the next few years, despite Vermont's record of minimal support for higher education. In the western United States, he points out, community colleges have taken more steps toward serving a high school population, with California leading the way.
But for now, the CCV experience remains somewhat unique. Although some of the high-schoolers enrolled at the school entered independently and have their tuition paid by their families, the college has also worked actively with local high schools to find other funding and access opportunities. At Proctor High School in Rutland, Vt., for example, vouchers funded by the high school allow students to take CCV classes to supplement their regular curriculum.
At Burlington High School, a program called College Connections allows 24 students to attend CCV classes through funding supplied by a private foundation. At Vergennes Union High School, another private grant allows the school to offer one CCV class, tuition-free, on-site, every semester.
The idea at Vergennes was to give kids who did reasonably well at school but might not otherwise have opted for college a taste of higher education.
According to some students enrolled in the basic humanities class, which meets twice a week after their regular high school courses, the program has revolutionized their view of academics.
"I've gotten more out of this class in a few weeks than I got out of all the rest of high school," says junior Amber Frasier. "It's weird, but in this class I don't even mind doing homework," chimes in classmate Christine Aiken.
These girls and a number of their fellow students agree that a more-interesting reading list, deeper discussions, and a more-adult atmosphere have increased the allure of academic studies. "When I see what we do here," Brigitte Husk says, "I want to go to college."
In the spring, funding for the program is expected to increase to allow three other county high schools to offer the same program to their students.
Should it be privately funded?
For some taxpayers, however, such programs are acceptable only if they're privately funded. "The biggest objection I get is: 'These kids are already getting a free education and it's not working for them, so why give them this too?' " Matkowski says. "My answer is, 'Because it might make a difference for them in a different way.' "
She adds that only state funding will make college classes broadly available.
Some critics also question the overall readiness of high school students to tackle college material. Matkowski concedes that the experience is not right for every teen, but points out that so far the high-schoolers they've enrolled have a 60 to 70 percent success rate, a figure consistent with adult performance at community colleges nationwide.
The school has also developed courses aimed specifically at the high school kids. These include a noncredit workshop called Introduction to College Studies, and basic classes in humanities, communication, technology, and career planning.
Nancy Cathcart, mother of high school junior Hunter Couture, says she watched a CCV class turn her son's life around. After an unhappy and unsuccessful sophomore year of high school, Hunter dropped out of school to take remedial reading at CCV.
"He absolutely loved it," she says. "It was wonderful for him to be in a group of multi-age people and to be treated like an adult. It helped him to redefine his view of himself."
Hunter never missed a class and was diligent about homework. "That was new behavior for him," says his mother. But the different attitude stuck - and he is today successfully re-enrolled in high school.
Ms. Cathcart hopes to see more kids get the chance her son got. She worries that more teens than ever - often ones who don't fit the "at-risk" profile - are having trouble connecting to a traditional high school experience. Case histories like Hunter's ought to serve "as a wake-up call," she says. "We need a new model."
A heady experience
Not all students who venture into CCV classes are propelled by profound unhappiness in high school. Seventeen-year-old Justin Cummings, a junior at Burlington High School, says pragmatism drove his decision to enroll in a basic humanities class at CCV through the College Connections program. He simply liked the idea of receiving college credit without paying tuition.
But now that he's in the class and finds himself surrounded by adults, reading Plato and examining literature in ways he's never done before, Justin says that it's a heady experience.
The big difference between this and high school, he says, is that "you have to think a lot more."
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