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Carson City School Vote Puts Middle-College Idea on the Line

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Voters in Carson City, Nev., will decide in two weeks whether to build a new high school. As simple as that sounds, the $48.5 million bond issue has proved divisive, and not just because of the accompanying tax increase. Passage of the measure has only about an even chance--in large part because the new school would be a feature of an educational experiment that is growing in popularity nationwide.

The idea in Nevada's capital city, as elsewhere, is to create a program linking the curriculum and instruction of a high school with that of a community college, an arrangement known as "middle college."

But opposing the Carson City proposal are community college faculty members, who are reluctant to share their campus with what they fear will be immature teenagers riding skateboards and scrawling graffiti, and nearby homeowners worried about traffic, noise, and higher taxes.

Officials at other middle-college programs say they, too, have had to overcome similar fears and stereotypes about high school students. But the outcome, they say, is worth the initial resistance.

Carson City is hardly alone in its interest in the concept. Since January, at least three middle colleges have opened around the nation: in Costa Mesa, Calif.; Las Vegas; and the Pittsburgh area. Others, including one in Spartanburg, S.C., are planned.

Since 1993, a national group has fostered cooperation among middle colleges and disseminated information about them. The Middle College High School Consortium has 16 institutional members, with five other middle colleges preparing to become members. The reform-minded organization, based at Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, N.Y., has members from Boston to Memphis to Seattle. Aside from the consortium, there is no clear estimate of how many middle colleges exist.

The goal of the 8,000-student Carson City district is the "coordination of the high school students' transition from high school classes to community college classes," said James Parry, a district associate superintendent. The more seamless the progression is, he and others argue, the more it can show students that they are candidates for higher education--an option they may not have considered.

"We lose sight of the fact that kids need a vision of their next step," Mr. Parry said.

Middle-college programs typically target high school students who are at risk of dropping out.

A Middle Place

The middle-college approach was apparently born more than 20 years ago when Middle College High School at Fiorello H. LaGuardia Community College opened its doors in the Queens borough of New York City.

The term emerged from the idea of a "middle place between high school and college," said Cecilia L. Cullen, the principal at LaGuardia's Middle College High, which is still a national model. It is common for these hybrid environments to be in the middle of a community college campus, she said.

Like the facility at LaGuardia, the other schools in the consortium offer school-to-work assistance, such as internships, and the requisite courses students need to fulfill state graduation requirements and move on to college.

Most of the students served nationwide by middle colleges, Ms. Cullen said, are from minority groups and low- to moderate-income families. And they have some characteristic that put them at risk of failing to complete high school.

Middle College on the campus of De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif., for instance, sought to combat a growing dropout problem when it opened in 1989. Run with the Fremont Union High School District in Sunnyvale, the program was modeled on the LaGuardia concept but it is not part of the consortium.

A six-year study suggests the program has been a success. It found that 87 percent of the participating students had completed the necessary requirements for high school graduation. The study also found that nine out of 10 students continued their education immediately at De Anza, later transferring to four-year institutions. By racking up college credits in the program, students can also save thousands of dollars in tuition costs when they transfer, said Marti Ainsworth, an instructor.

De Anza provides the classrooms and office space and waives tuition for the 115-student program. The school district contributes the funding and the instructors for the 11th and 12th graders, who come from five high schools.

The program screens students carefully, asking them to submit an application and teacher recommendations and undergo an interview. Officials look for students who are prone to dropping out but are well-adjusted socially and able to work independently. Their grades and standardized-test scores may be at odds, too. The program turns away about one-third of the applicants.

While their socioeconomic backgrounds may vary, students at De Anza often are bright but have troubled home lives, Ms. Ainsworth said. The De Anza program lets students choose when their school day begins and which courses they want to take, providing they fulfill state mandates.

The college also benefits, said Steven L. Sellitti, a dean at De Anza. It gets a recruitment tool in a region competing for higher education students and matriculating students who do not need remedial education. The college also gets enough funding from the district to make the program worthwhile.

'Nervous' Faculty

The proposed partnership between the Carson City school district and Western Nevada Community College, which enrolls about 3,000 students on its Carson City campus, evolved rapidly. In the spring, the district decided it would pursue building its second high school. Then in June, the state board of regents approved the donation to the district of a 50-acre parcel worth about $3 million that lies about 1,000 yards south of the college.

District officials say they must address the growth in enrollment in a city where the high desert meets the Sierra Nevada's ponderosa forest. For the past six years, the district has seen a 4 percent annual increase. At Carson High School, the 2,350-student enrollment has already passed the building's capacity of 2,200 students. And the growth can only continue; 17 portable classrooms stand on the two middle school campuses, Mr. Parry, the associate superintendent, said. Nevada has the fastest-growing K-12 enrollment in the nation.

Carson City officials are not focusing solely on students at risk of dropping out. They would like, they say, to make a dent in the national statistic that ranks Nevada 49th in sending high school students on to higher education.

How much help Carson City graduates need, though, is debatable. Unlike graduates in the rest of the state, 70 percent of those in Carson City go on to some form of higher education.

In addition to the new $30 million high school, which would likely open in the fall of 1998 with 1,200 students, the bond issue would buy a new $11.5 million middle school and provide another $7 million for building renovations and technology.

If the bond issue is defeated Nov. 5, the existing high school will have to go to a double-session day or a multi-track, year-round schedule, which is what its opponents favor, Superintendent E. Leon Mattingley said. If the bond passes, district officials will begin planning for the type of middle college they want and make such decisions as the entry-grade level for taking community college classes.

Officials, however, cannot risk using the term "middle college" when touting the program, Mr. Parry said, because of fear within the college community of losing status as an institution of higher learning.

Some opponents of the measure are concerned that a high school linked to WNCC's Carson City campus would be unfair to students at the district's other high school on a less affluent side of town. Or the alliance, they worry, would appear to skew the college's emphasis toward Carson City and away from the other seven counties it serves.

Teachers at the high school fear losing their jobs to the community college faculty, while some of the college instructors don't want to revisit a level of schooling they have fled.

Many are former high school teachers whose current students are an average of 31 years old. The instructors are reluctant to go back to the social troubles they associate with high schoolers, said Richard Stewart, the chairman of the WNCC faculty senate.

"Yes, they did go over to community college to escape some of those problems," Mr. Stewart, who teaches business and computers, said. "And yes, they are very nervous about seeing them again."

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