Erika Simonds didn’t expect that going to college while still in high school would be like this. “It’s exactly the opposite of what I thought college would be,” said the 17-year-old junior at Kenowa Hills High School. “I thought it would just be taking notes. We have a lot of papers and projects, a lot of group work.”
Not that she or her classmates are complaining. As they wrap up their first year, the 15 students at Kenowa Hills Middle College say they’re happy to have gotten a jump on their college degrees – while saving considerable cash. Their five classes have cost them nothing, thanks to an agreement between Kenowa Hills Public Schools and Davenport University.
“Having an experience like this, there’s not even words to say what a blessing it is to so many people,” said Shiane Crow, 17, who’s working toward a business degree.
Diploma and associates degree from a 13th year
Begun last fall, the program enables Kenowa students to begin earning two-year degrees at Davenport while completing their high-school course work. It requires a 13th year of high school, but students will graduate with both a diploma and an associate’s degree or up to 60 credits that can be transferred to most state colleges and universities.
Kenowa is one of the first schools in Kent ISD to take advantage of the state-sanctioned program. Wyoming Public Schools has a similar arrangement with Grand Rapids Community College.
Although still in its infancy, the experiment has paid off so far, said Katie Pennington, Kenowa Hills High School principal.
“It has been an unbelievably smooth experience,” Pennington said. “It wasa way to offer a first-year college experience to a lot of kids who otherwise might not have had the opportunity.”
More affordable, but higher expectations
Kenowa entered into the agreement as a way to raise academic standards and lower college costs for some of its students, said Superintendent Gerald Hopkins. “We wanted to see an increased level of rigor for our secondary students,” Hopkins said of the 1,200-student high school.
The program also provided an affordable option for students faced with mounting college costs, he said. The school district’s per-pupil funding covers the Davenport tuition. “That’s a big thing for families that may have been wondering, ‘How do we make all this work?’ “ Hopkins said.
For some families, Pennington added, “This was the only way they were going to be able to send a child to college.”
Students are enrolled in degree programs for business, information technology and nursing. They took two university courses per semester this year, following a required Career and Education Seminar last summer. They will take three courses next year, some of which will be on the Davenport campus in Caledonia. By the third year they will take only one high school class while finishing their Davenport degrees.
The 90-minute college classes each meet twice a week. One of them requires the students to stay half an hour after school lets out. On the two days their early morning class does not meet, most of them come in to study anyway.
“They are worker bees,” Pennington said. “It’s given them a lot of forced independence. They’ve had to learn how to budget their time better – to be intrinsically motivated.”
A head start and big hearts
Their motivation comes partly from starting college early, students say. They’re already thinking about careers and job possibilities when they graduate. They jokingly call it “submersed college.”
“I just feel like we’re a step ahead of everyone else,” said Allison Polkowski, 17, who’s weighing her degree options between business and health. Added Joshua Simon, 16, “It’s nice to know you’re paving the path” for future Middle College students.
Thirty-five students have applied for admission next year, based on test scores, grade-point averages and references. Pennington expects 20 to 25 will be admitted after she meets with the students’ families. “We don’t want to grow too fast and lose track of the unique needs these kids have,” she said.
She’s seen the Middle College students improve their writing skills, form friendships with each other and good relationships with their adjunct instructors.
At Christmas, they raised money to buy presents for a teacher whose wife had cancer and their three children. They wrapped the presents and gave them to him on the last day of class. “That was probably the most rewarding part of our year,” said Shiane Crow.
As for that 13th year of high school, the students don’t seem too bothered.
“I think we’ll be kind of respected as the super seniors,” Crow said. “It will be cool.”