Three years ago, 25 district sophomores decided to get an early start on college. All are well on their way to graduating this fall, having already saved thousands on higher education.
Enrolled in the district’s Middle College program — a collaboration with Grand Rapids Community College — the initial cohort of students is the first from Cedar Springs to finish high school with as many as 39 college credits.
Twenty-three intend to finish an associate degree after just one year at GRCC’s downtown campus, and the remaining two are completing technical certificates. All will take their final GRCC classes while enrolled as high school students, and wrap up diplomas with an online capstone class.
Senior Kevin Galloway plans to earn his associate degree before heading to Davenport University, where he hopes to pursue a bachelor’s in marketing. He said what had been a difficult decision as a high school freshman became a no-brainer through the Middle College program, where he has taken a typical course load of high school classes in addition to college courses.
“I was college-bound, but I didn’t know my sophomore year if I was college-ready, if I was going to be able to handle classes that college is like,” Kevin said.
Therein lies the problem, said Anne Kostus, director of academic support services at Cedar Springs.
“What’s hard when they apply is they’re freshmen,” Kostus said. “As a freshman, you don’t necessarily know, ‘Where am I going? What do I do? Where are my interests?’ We’ve really tried to take the guesswork out of that.
“We’re checking each one of those boxes as they go through sophomore, junior, senior year, so when they get to their fifth year down at GRCC they can hyper-focus at that point on where they want to go and what they want to do.”
On a Tuesday earlier this semester, Kevin and his peers in the senior class cohort gathered in an upper-floor classroom to meet with Jennifer Keessen, a GRCC representative. She has helped them along their Middle College journey, and will continue to guide them through course selection for GRCC and any college or university they choose beyond that point.
For Kevin, Middle College has allowed him to focus on his coursework and less on the the stress of lining up all the right courses.
“We don’t have to worry about how many classes to graduate,” he said. “We just know we’ve got to show up there and do our work, and the background is being taken care of.”
Kevin said he knows what to expect, and isn’t nervous for next year about an academic rigor that will be familiar to him.
Junior Makenna Willea is among the second cohort of students. She chose Middle College last year because, as one of six children, it would be difficult for her family to afford to send each sibling on a traditional college path. With good scores on her application, she said her mom encouraged her.
“I’m already making steps toward my future. It makes it seem less scary.” — Cedar Springs High School junior Makenna Willea
“College isn’t for everyone, but this program, the classes that I’ve taken so far, have helped me so much,” Makenna said. “For next year I know that I don’t have to stress out about applying for colleges. I know that I’m going to GRCC. I know that I’m already taking college classes.
“I’m already making steps toward my future. It makes it seem less scary.”
Kevin said he encourages younger students to consider the opportunity, even if they aren’t sure college is right for them.
“You just have to try it,” he said. “It’s too good to pass up because you’re nervous about not being good enough. There are not any kids in our class who aren’t smart enough to have that good, fighting chance.”
The program is on track to add a fourth cohort of roughly 25 students next school year, bringing the number of Cedar Springs Middle College students to 100, including those who will attend GRCC in the fall. Kostus said she hopes to get as many qualified students on board as possible, including those who aren’t four-year university-bound.
“We really try to send a message of ‘You don’t stop learning after high school,’ ” Kostus said. “Everyone needs to do a post-secondary something. Whether that be a certificate program or Ph.D., you don’t just stop at high school.”