A looming employment problem is facing Henry Ford Health System, a network of hospitals and medical centers in southeastern Michigan that handles more than 3 million patient visits each year. Some of the system’s essential employees—the medical technologists, the therapists who provide patient services, the professionals who run the labs—are growing older. Their average age is over 50, and a handful are over 70.
The solution for the health system was to create its own future workforce. It joined with the 18,600-student Dearborn school district and Henry Ford Community College to create Henry Ford Early College, a five-year program that allows students from area school districts to graduate with a high school diploma, an associate of science degree, and a certification in one of 12 allied health fields, such as surgery technology, radiology, or biotechnology, at no cost to their families.
The program, now in its fourth year, is part of a trend among schools to provide students an alternative educational path that offers something more than a high school education but doesn’t involve the financial and time investment of a traditional four-year college.
“Our principal motivation was to continue to provide a pipeline of talented individuals into the professions we saw continuing to grow,” says William R. Schramm, the health system’s senior vice president for strategic business development and one of the earliest proponents of the early-college program.
And, though he is a hospital executive, Schramm talks like an educator when he explains the benefits of an early college.
“Imagine being a 14-year-old kid and seeing brain surgery,” he says. “You begin to make those connections. What difference does math make? What difference does science make? Here’s why you need to know these things.”
The program also offers a chance for success in a place dominated by a domestic auto industry that’s past its prime as a source of employment. Dearborn is the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Co., and its presence is everywhere in the city.
“There’s still a mind-set that I don’t need to go to college to get a good job,” says David Mustonen, a spokesman for the Dearborn district, but this program helps break through that mentality, he says. Now, Mustonen says, the district can tell students, “if you go to college, look at the rewards you’re going to get.”
The early-college movement got a boost in 2002, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested $107 million to launch an early-college high school initiative intended to create programs to entice underrepresented students into postsecondary work. Currently, more than 200 early colleges exist throughout the country.
But after a fast start, some are struggling because cash-strapped states have diverted money to other programs. The Gates Foundation shifted its funding to other priorities in 2009, says a Gates spokesman. (The philanthropy also provides grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.)
Henry Ford Early College, however, “is one of the best examples” of the early-college concept, says Cecilia Cunningham, the executive director of the Middle College National Consortium, in Long Island City, New York. The Michigan program is a member school.
At Henry Ford Early College, about 200 students entered a lottery for this year’s freshman class, which is limited to 50. The school enrolls students who live in Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit and other cities in the metropolitan area.
Among early colleges, the 173-student program has some unusual features. Many schools offer access to college classes, for example, but Henry Ford students can attend some of the most rigorous and highly subscribed courses offered by the 19,000-student community college. While some high schools struggle to connect with an institution of higher learning, Dearborn schools and Henry Ford Community College are run by the same school board, forming the only “K-14” school district in Michigan.
Created out of that milieu, Henry Ford Early College is more of a hybrid, with the community college and the hospital system both taking some responsibility, while the Dearborn district maintains primary control.
And, though many schools have partnerships with businesses, Henry Ford freshmen and sophomores attend classes every Wednesday on the same grounds as the business they study. A wing of the hospital office complex was renovated into classroom space, and students shadow hospital professionals and interact with patients.
But by choosing to attend the early college, students usually must give up student clubs, extracurricular activities, proms, and other such features of a regular high school. They are allowed to participate in those programs at their base high schools, but the workload and transportation make it too challenging for most.
“When we advertise, we tell parents it has got to be what the kid wants,” says Heyam Alcodray, the early college’s principal.
Recruitment and retention were among the program’s early challenges. Forty-two students enrolled in 2007, the program’s first year, as freshmen. Only 24 of them have made it to the fourth year of the program this academic year. Of the 72 students who enrolled in the second year, 50 remain.
One problem is that some students were not that interested in health careers, Alcodray says. “The parents were more excited than the kids,” she says, adding that she now carefully explains the program to parents and students before they apply.
Other students couldn’t handle the academic workload. Because the freshmen and sophomores go on clinical rotations once a week, instruction must be crammed into four days instead of five.
“It’s kind of overwhelming, when you think of it,” says Samantha Abdorabehe, a 17-year-old Henry Ford Early College senior. She has one year remaining of college coursework to graduate with an associate degree in the physical therapy assistant program.
“I think sometimes, ‘Why did I decide to do this?’ when I’m working so hard and I’m so young,” Abdorabehe says. But, she says, she knew she wanted to end up in the health-care field.
This program “is going to benefit my future,” she says. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics says physical therapy assistants can expect much faster than average job growth, and earn a median salary of around $46,000.
One of the first classes freshmen take at the hospital focuses on how to behave in a professional setting. While at the hospital complex, students wear lab coats and identification badges, and eat in the employee cafeteria. They are scattered throughout different health-system facilities when they are on their Wednesday rotations, so school and hospital staff members rely on cellphones to keep in touch.
“Every Wednesday, it’s like a field trip,” says Laura Smykowski, who teaches high school biology and physics. “If you’re not flexible, you won’t last as a teacher here.”
The early college does have some students who may not be able to handle the college work, Alcodray says. Unlike in its first years, the program requires incoming students to be within two years of grade-levels expectations for freshmen.
But keeping the program open for students who might not be top achievers is important, Alcodray adds.
“There are kids I brought in who have low GPAs who are just flourishing here,” she says. Alcodray and other program staff are working with struggling students so they can graduate with an associate degree, or at least some college credits.
“We are going to follow them, to make sure they register and they finish off what they need to do” when they graduate from the program, Alcodray says. “To send them off at 18 and not be done, I’d feel like I’d let them down,” she says.
Forty-seven percent of Henry Ford Early College’s students are Arab-American, reflecting Dearborn’s own demographics as an Arab-American population center in the United States. Twenty-seven percent of the students in the program are African-American, 18 percent are white, and the remaining 8 percent are Hispanic or Asian. About 64 percent are eligible for subsidized lunches.
The program requires a lot of flexibility and maturity from the students, some of whom display an almost steely ambition. They do not feel as if they have been steered into a career path too soon. Rather, the early-college program gives them a chance to succeed far beyond other students their age, they say.
Hussein Ayoub, a 15-year-old sophomore from Dearborn, says he almost didn’t sign up for the program “because I thought I would be so devastated if I didn’t get in.”
And he also thought he would miss his friends from middle school. But the program has turned out great, says the aspiring surgeon, who has witnessed an amputation and a thyroid operation. “It was real fun,” he says, grinning.
Zahraa Samra,15, and also in the 10th grade, also says she likes that she is getting an early start on her career, which she believes will be in pharmacy.
The program “is opening our minds to opportunities that can help us later on,” says Samra. The program is hard, she says, “but they don’t want anybody to fail. They’ll do anything to help you.”
What makes Henry Ford Early College particularly promising may be its connections to the more popular programs in the community college, according to Cunningham of the Middle College National Consortium. In many other early-college programs, she says, students are steered toward courses of study that aren’t especially desirable.
“The departments that volunteered to do these programs have been the ones where they were losing college majors,” Cunningham says. “And guess what? The kids didn’t want to take those classes, either.”
However, that element of openness also restricts the size of the early college; there’s not enough room for more students in the health-certification program, says community college President Gail C. Mee. “We’d have to expand into other career pathways,” she says, like information technology, to bring more students into the early college. The focus right now is on making the current program a success.
In addition to creating a program with a “seamless curriculum” for students, Mee says she sees the effort as a social commitment to the community.
“This is a way to better prepare students for the next generation of jobs,” she says.
Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.