School & District Management

High School, With a College Twist

By John Gehring — March 14, 2001 19 min read
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‘They treat us like adults. That’s what students want. It is just a different experience. Here, you have to be mature.’

Melissa Young,
Middle College
High School

For those first two years, Alisha Nguyen drifted through high school. Like many teenagers in the hallways and classrooms of the nation’s high schools, she simply went through the motions. Equally uninspired and restless, she dutifully did her time, earned passing grades, and stayed out of trouble. But by her sophomore year, she began craving something more than just getting by. “For a while, I didn’t see where I was going in school,” says the 16-year-old, who is considering a career in law. “I wasn’t being challenged. I wasn’t going anywhere.”

What Nguyen found here at Middle College High School on the campus of Contra Costa College—high expectations, the chance to take college courses, a small school environment—proved to be the key that unlocked a new found engagement with school.

Nguyen, who transferred to the 240-student school last year, now takes three college classes and is racking up more credits so she eventually can transfer to a four-year university. “The whole atmosphere is different here,” she says. “You are more independent.”

A little-noticed alternative to the traditional comprehensive high school, middle-college high schools like the one here in San Pablo, Calif., a city of 27,000 in Contra Costa County a few miles north of Berkeley, are a more than quarter-century-old experiment in knocking down the walls between high school and college.

Middle-college students, in the words of middle-college counselor Emilie Wilson, “march to their own beat.” Most find the culture of traditional high schools—where jocks often rule the halls, cliques dominate social life, and large classes leave little time for individual attention—an unwelcoming environment. But the school in San Pablo is not just attracting students frustrated with public schools: About 20 percent of the students at this middle college come from private schools.

No school bells or hall monitors here. Students, who are still in high school but who often take three college classes a semester, have access to the entire college campus. They use the same library and labs that the college’s students do. They also give up some typical high school activities like team sports and proms. College professors often don’t know if students enrolled in their classes are actually in high school.

“People are not here to play, and we are not babysitters,” says Terrence Elliot, the chairman of the college’s African-American history department, who also co-teaches a class in American social history for Middle College High students. “There are high expectations.”

Born in Long Island City, N.Y., on the campus of LaGuardia Community College in 1974, middle-college high schools were something of a radical idea at the time. In an educational world where turf was sacred and the divide between public secondary schools and ivory-tower postsecondary institutions had been bridged only rarely and often with deep reservations, change was not easily embraced.

The concept began with the goals of reducing the dropout rate in urban high schools, better preparing students for college, and attracting more students to higher education.

Skeptics were easy to find. “People didn’t believe we could take this population,” recalls Janet Lieberman, the founder of the middle-college model and the assistant to the president for educational collaboration at the 11,000-student LaGuardia Community College. “Nobody believed we could make it work,” she continues. “We were looking at giving these young people a second chance.”

The first class of middle-college students at LaGuardia was made up of students who didn’t fit in the traditional public school. “We made it possible for them to dream about going to college,” Lieberman says. “It was totally out of their experience before this. We showed this population had promise, and given the right kind of preparation, could make it.”

After a few years of growing pains, Middle College High School at LaGuardia became a success story that boasted near- perfect attendance and graduation rates. In the mid-1980s, impressed Ford Foundation officials helped underwrite imitations of the model around the country. By 1991, about 10 middle colleges had opened. Since then, the number has tripled and Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, among other states, now have middle colleges. About 7,000 students nationwide now attend the schools. The middle-college movement received high praise in a recent preliminary report by the National Commission on the High School Senior Year, a 29-member group set up last June by former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to examine how high schools can improve. The 46-page report, replete with ways that the panel says high schools have failed graduating seniors, cites the growing numbers of middle-college high schools as an novel alternative for some students.

“Education advocates of various kinds are beginning to seriously question the manner in which American schools have used time,” the report states. “Why does everyone have to go to high school for four years? If students need more time, should it not be available? If they can master the material in less time, why not let them move on? Some of these ideas might require a period of probing, but in the long run, could add variation to a structure that currently permits hardly none.”

Jacquelyn M. Belcher, the vice chairwoman of the high school commission and the president of Georgia Perimeter College near Atlanta, says that middle colleges help bridge the unnecessary divide between high school and college. “It becomes clear with education reform that we can’t just look at one segment of education,” she says. “There should be a seamlessness between K-12 and higher education that is not really present now. There is a disconnect that really works against students, particularly average students.”

Middle-college schools vary in design. Most are located on the campuses of two-year community or technical colleges, although a few operate on four-year college campuses. Many have at least some classes team-taught by college and high school faculty members. At schools like the one here at Contra Costa College, which opened in 1989, the middle college has a prominent location—in the college’s administrative and applied arts building—and plays a prominent, integrated role in the college’s mission. That has proven to be a critical element for success, says the school’s principal, Gary Carlone. “We are in every nook and cranny of the college,” Carlone says. “What makes this work is the partnership. We couldn’t do this without the support of the college.”

At some other colleges, the middle-college high schools are seen as auxiliary programs, and the two institutions don’t mesh as well. Students take college classes at all middle colleges, but the number of high school students taking college classes also depends on the campus.

One middle college, International High School, one of three middle colleges on the campus of LaGuardia Community College, is designed for students with limited English proficiency who have been in the United States less than four years. It enrolls students from 52 countries who speak a total of 39 languages.

Harold Wechsler, a professor of education in the graduate school of education and human development at the University of Rochester, says the typically bumpy passage that accompanies the start-up of a middle college can often be understood within the historical context of community colleges’ fight for more respect in academia.

Even well into the 1960s, a substantial number of community colleges—or “junior” colleges as many were called then—were located on high school campuses, notes Wechsler, the author of a book on middle-college high schools due out this summer. Most two-year colleges won their independence in the 1970s, and some faculty members balk at being associated with a high school system again.

‘Why does everyone have to go to high school for four years? If students need more time, should it not be available? If they can master the material in less time, why not let them move on?’

Preliminary report, National Commission on the High School Senior Year

And not all of the country’s 1,100-plus public two-year colleges, Wechsler says, are ripe for such a partnership for other reasons, too. Finding space for the high school on campus and navigating the internal politics of a skeptical faculty, he says, is not for the weak-willed college president.

In Memphis, for example, the middle college at South West Tennessee Community College, which opened in 1986 with the enthusiastic support of a now-departed district superintendent, had as many ups and downs as the Dow Jones. As the superintendent and the college president scurried to take advantage of available foundation money to start the program, faculty members were given little notice that the high school would open on their campus. Professors filed complaints with college administrators against students they accused of verbal harassment. The school became known derisively by some faculty as “Hoodlum High.”

Then the Memphis school board, faced with budget problems, voted to drop the school. Parents and students came out in full force, objecting to the closing, and the board rescinded its vote. Despite the whirlwinds, the Middle College High School at South West Tennessee Community College persisted, and it remains open today with strong support from the college.

Jacqueline Ancess, the associate director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which helped the 21-member Middle College High School Consortium devise a “critical friends” review system in which schools are evaluated for effective practices, says that middle colleges make higher education more tangible for secondary school students. “They make college-going real and not an abstraction for students,” she says. “These students know what college demands.”

Middle colleges, at their best, demonstrate what can happen when, in Wechsler’s words, “the walls come tumbling down” between the secondary and postsecondary world. As with a sniping couple working through a complicated romance, the relationship the middle college shares today with Contra Costa College initially wasn’t a match made in heaven. At first, many college faculty members were unenthusiastic about the idea of having high school students permanently on campus. The year the school opened, Middle College High was relegated to quarters at the far end of campus, near a public bus stop. Problems on campus, such as graffiti or broken windows, immediately were blamed on the middle-college students. And, unlike the careful selection process used to choose students today, members of the first class of middle-college students often were academically unprepared for college and came with behavior problems, says the school’s former principal, Myra Silverberg.

“People viewed it as a place to send the ‘bad kids’ other schools didn’t want,” says Silverman, who spent seven years as the school’s principal and helped it evolve into the success story it is today. “We had to do a lot of things to change the image of the middle college with the community college.”

An advisory committee made up of college and middle-college faculty members helped build trust and improve communication. Soon, faculty and staff members at Contra Costa saw the benefits of having a middle college on their campus. The money the middle college receives for library materials, for example, comes from the local school district, and that money is shared with the college. “We tried to meld resources so we became an integral part of the campus,” Silverberg says. “We got the point across to the college that our students are your students.”

Helen Carr, the president of Contra Costa College, has nothing but praise for the middle college. “I talk to the ninth graders every year, and they say they like being here because they are treated like adults,” she says. “We get visitors all the time, and there is a lot of interest in this. The school is an immediate source of students for the college. Many of them stay here.”

Every year, several middle-college students end up with enough college credits to earn an associate’s degree. They attend the college’s graduation ceremonies and then, the following week, attend high school graduation and receive their diplomas.

McKinley Williams, the college’s dean, agrees that the partnership has had a mutual benefit. “It has been a successful marriage,” he says. “We have the same goals. We want to provide these students with a college-level experience before they get here.”

It’s 8 a.m., and Chris Myers can’t sit still. With one leg pumping hard under the table like a jackhammer and hands fidgeting with anything in reach, the 21-year-old graduate of Middle College High School at Contra Costa is talking about a school he says saved him from his worst enemy—himself.

A self-described “little fat kid” for much of his youth, Myers had soared through elementary school with good grades. When junior high hit with its hyped- up social climate and ever-pervasive cliques, his grades dived and he grew more withdrawn. Each day he felt more like a faceless part of the masses at his school. “I craved individual attention, and there is no way in a big school to get that,” he says. “You are a number as far as they’re concerned.”

Things changed dramatically when he enrolled at the middle-college school here as a high school freshman. Slowly, he was forced out of his shell. The challenge of college courses sparked his appetite for learning. For four straight years, he won the middle college’s exemplary-student award. Now a tutor at the middle college, he plans to enroll at the University of California, Davis, next year.

While no long-range national reports have studied the model, Chery Wagonlander, the principal of Mott Community College High School in Flint, Mich., has found through in-depth interviews with students at her school that the personal attention students receive at middle colleges often reconnects the most alienated students with school. Boys said the number one reason for improved attitudes was being able to show emotion and honesty with an adult. Girls reported being perceived as bright and receiving opportunities for leadership roles as the most significant factor in their turn around.

‘People are not here to play, and we are not babysitters.’

Terrence Elliot,
History Department,
Middle College
High School

“The overall finding was it didn’t matter if kids had been sexually abused in the past or addicted to drugs, it was the presence of a caring educator that mattered,” says Wagonlander. “The most significant factor was they had an adult who perceived them to be quality kids who can do quality work.”

Talk to students here, and it doesn’t take long to understand one of the overwhelming attractions this school holds for independent-minded students. “They treat us like adults,” says 16-year-old Melissa Young. “That’s what students want. It is just a different experience. Here, you have to be mature.”

That sentiment makes perfect sense to Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College in Annadale- on-the Hudson, N.Y., and Simon’s Rock College of Bard in Greater Barrington, Mass., the nation’s only college specifically designed for high-school-age students.

Mr. Botstein has been a prominent voice in the discussion about the failure of American high schools. In his 1997 book, Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture, he argues that the 11th and 12th grades should be abolished so that students can have more flexibility with their education and their careers. It makes little sense, he says, to segregate young students in an environment disconnected from the adult world, particularly when youths today physically mature faster than they did in generations past. Alternatives to the traditional high school model, he says, push the system to address its outdated structure. But he has little faith that change will come from within.

“The educational system is a tradition-bound, bureaucratic, state-funded monopoly,” Botstein complains. “There is so much vested interest. And it’s tragic, because then you get attacks on the system like vouchers and privatization.”

Cecilia Cunningham, the longtime principal at Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College, worries that in the current education climate, with its heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing, alternative schools like middle colleges are working against a powerful current.

After an invitation from Rudolph F. Crew, then the chancellor of the 1.1 million-student New York City public schools, her school converted to a charter school two years ago. Cunningham says she did so under the assumption that her students would still be exempt from taking the state regents’ exams, as had been the case under a waiver granted by the previous state commissioner of education. But the current commissioner, Richard P. Mills, rescinded the waiver, and students at the middle college must take the English section of the regents’ exam this spring. The middle college took the commissioner to court, but lost the case last spring.

Cunningham, who directs the national middle- colleges consortium that provides support and peer-review critiques of middle colleges around the country, contends that the fundamental principles of alternative education that encourage portfolio assessments and other ways of ensuring accountability for student achievement are threatened by the prevailing educational attitude that puts a premium on test results. “This is the type of curriculum that gets destroyed when we have these tests,” she says. “I think testing will destroy schools like ours.”

While the middle college students get a jump on college credits, most to do not graduate early from high school. Because most students are classified as “at risk” in some way, Cunningham says the primary goal is to ensure they complete high school. Many take more than four years to graduate from high school.

“We have to find ways for kids to stay in school,” Cunningham says, noting an increased dropout rate in New York City schools and other systems as high-stakes test tied to graduation increasingly become a hurdle for students.

Not every student here at the San Pablo middle college will become a success story. Many of the students who don’t make it here, school officials say, are students who enrolled simply because their parents wanted them at the innovative school. But even for committed students, the higher expectations of college classes can be daunting.

With that in mind, the middle college has a strong academic-counseling program that includes tutoring and support classes for students enrolled in, for example, a college-level science class. High school teachers review the work being covered in the college class to make sure students are keeping pace. “We wouldn’t succeed if we just said, ‘Here you are, now go to college,’ ” says Carlone, the school’s affable principal. “We know they need support, and that is where we spend a lot of our time.”

The results have been impressive. Last year, students at Middle College High outscored the highest ranking high school in the district on the Stanford Achievement Test- 9th edition—which California uses to assess students—by 17 percent in reading, 13 percent in math, and 8 percent in science. The school boasts more than 90 percent daily attendance and graduation rates.

Students usually take two college courses as freshmen, three as sophomores, and often four by 11th grade. Schedules are not set before students sit down with Emilie Wilson, the middle- college counselor who helps select students in the admissions process and aids them in mapping out their schedules when they arrive.

Students usually take two college courses as freshmen, three as sophomores, and often four by 11th grade.

Wilson, along with other school administrators involved in the application and admissions process, works hard to keep a diverse student enrollment that mirrors as closely as possible the demographics of the 35,000-student West Contra Costa Unified School District, where more than 80 languages are spoken. Thirty-two percent of the middle-college students are Asian-American, 24 percent are African-American, 25 percent are Hispanic, and 14 percent are white.

Gloria Johnston, the superintendent of the school district, says that unlike school systems that see middle colleges as a drain on their best students, West Contra Costa views the middle college with pride. “I’m very impressed,” says Johnston, who before becoming superintendent two years ago was not familiar with middle colleges. “When you go to their graduation, you see how diverse the students are. It is real hard to put them in one category and say, ‘This is the type of student who goes to school here.’ ”

Despite the challenge of college courses, many of the professors here speak highly of the quality of work middle-college students are doing. “In the beginning, there were a lot of professors who didn’t want them here at all,” says Elliot, who heads the college’s African-American history department. “To me, it makes us better because the kids are really high achievers.”

Rocco Chavez, a political science professor at the college, says he often is surprised when he finds out an accomplished student in his class is only a freshman in high school. “They can be real talkative before class, and it may take a while to settle them down, but that is a small price to pay for students who are bright and articulate,” he says. “Most students here are afraid of the concept of college at first. No one in their family went to college, and they may not think they can handle it. When they get here, they see that they can.”

Rita Ruderman, a veteran teacher in her first year at the middle college, admits to having some difficulty in making the adjustment to teaching at a middle college. Teachers here don’t have rooms of their own, but travel from classroom to classroom, depending on the availability of space that semester. For someone used to the familiar patterns of high school like Ms. Ruderman, who taught at a traditional high school for 30 years, the change was tough. But with smaller classes, motivated students, and opportunities to collaborate with the college, she has settled into the middle-college culture.

A health-careers and biology teacher, she now co-teaches a dental-assisting class with Sandra Everhart, the director of Contra Costa College’s dental program. Among other activities, students will complete a project that requires them to set up a mock dental business. They will interview dentists, write a literature review, ask architects and engineers about facility requirements, and learn entry-level dental skills, earning them both high school and college credit for the class. Ruderman and Everhart plan to have some college students in the dental- assisting program work with the middle-college students.

“The thing that is so exciting about this school,” Ruderman says, “is we are right here on the campus. You don’t have to take a field trip to a college ... It’s a fabulous environment. This college has so much to offer. How could you not be excited about this?”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as High School, With a College Twist


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