Brittney Crews took so many dual-credit courses at rural Halifax County High in South Boston, Va., that she received an associate degree weeks before her 2011 high school graduation ceremony.
“It helps you go ahead and start your life instead of having to stay so long in school,” said Ms. Crews, 19, who now attends Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, Va.
Ms. Crews’ situation isn’t unique for Halifax County High. Nearly one-fifth of its 407 seniors earned associate degrees by the time they graduated last school year, and 91 percent finished high school with a college transcript. The approximately 1,700-student school has become a leader in dual-enrollment participation in the state for its emphasis on dual-enrollment courses.
Halifax County High has accomplished that despite its rural location, and it did so through a number of efforts, such as encouraging high school teachers to become college instructors, creating satellite sites for dual-enrollment courses, and raising its number of student participants by offering college-level classes in career and technical education areas.
The Halifax County district, which enrolls about 5,900 students, expanded its dual-enrollment portfolio under the leadership of its former superintendent, Paul Stapleton, who wanted to see more of his students go to college.
“It was like most things in education,” he said. “If there’s a need and you’re in a rural area, you try to solve a problem. You know no one is going to come to your rescue.”
Students in dual enrollment earn both high school and college credit for taking the same course. More than 70 percent of public high schools offered dual-credit courses about 10 years ago, according to the most recent available figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. But rural schools often face difficulties in offering such courses because of their distance from colleges and the high cost of transportation.
Halifax County High’s focus on dual enrollment can be traced back to Mr. Stapleton, who led the district from 2004 until this past June. He had been Virginia’s state superintendent from 1998 to 2000.
Mr. Stapleton became an advocate for dual-enrollment courses much earlier in his career. He pushed the concept as long ago as 1987, when he was still the superintendent of the Charlotte County, Va., school system, a rural district that borders Halifax County. He saw dual-enrollment courses as a way to give rural students more opportunities and to level the playing field with more affluent areas.
The community didn’t have a college-going climate, he said. Some students’ parents didn’t have a college education or didn’t see the importance of one for their children, and some students were intimidated by the prospect of going to a major university.
“We were trying to give them some quality classes and make sure they were comfortable, and that they could see and their parents could see they were capable of doing college-level work,” Mr. Stapleton said.
Halifax County had a few dual-enrollment courses in 2004 when Mr. Stapleton took over as its school superintendent, and he looked for ways to build on those.
For instance, transportation can be a huge cost for rural areas, and the nearest community college was at least a 35-minute drive from the community. Mr. Stapleton put the district’s money into helping high school teachers become certified as college instructors so students could take dual-enrollment courses on the high school campus.
For certification, high school teachers must have a master’s degree in the disciplines they are teaching or a master’s degree in any subject plus 18 credit hours in that discipline. Halifax launched an effort in 2004 to pay the cost for teachers to earn those credentials; it has assisted more than 35 teachers since then. In all, 48 of Halifax County High’s 147 teachers now are adjunct college faculty members.
The district has since virtually eliminated that assistance for teachers because of budget cuts. It now covers only the classes required for teachers to maintain their certification to teach dual-enrollment courses.
An Educator’s Experience
Sandy Wilborn is among the teachers who became a college adjunct through credits paid for by the district. Prior to deciding to become a teacher, she had earned her bachelor’s degree in math and worked in a bank. When she decided to teach, she got a provisional license and a job at Halifax County Middle School as a prealgebra and algebra teacher. She realized she wanted to teach dual-enrollment courses to high school students.
“I wanted to be with students who really wanted to learn, and these students are given an opportunity to do so much more,” she said.
With the cost of her graduate classes covered by the district, she earned her master’s degree in 2008 and now teaches dual enrollment precalculus.
Although many rural schools lean on virtual classes for dual-enrollment courses, none has been offered at Halifax County High within the past two years. The school has had all the dual-enrollment courses students wanted or needed on campus.
Halifax County High students collectively earned 13,270 college credits through dual-credit courses in the 2011-12 school year. Sixty-three percent of its students participated in dual-enrollment courses.
The school has been able to reach more students by expanding its career and technical education offerings; 85 percent of those courses are dual-enrollment.
Melanie Stanley, the assistant principal for curriculum and instruction at Halifax County High, said those elective dual-enrollment classes are critical for students who otherwise might not think about college. The courses serve as an introduction to postsecondary education and show students they can do well and work toward a trade, she said.
“A lot of the kids who do not do well in academic core classes tend to have more success at tech-prep,” she said. “The kids who would not have thought about going to college are now venturing out and being successful.”
Unlike the core academic dual-enrollment courses, the elective dual-enrollment classes do not require a placement test or minimum state test score. Students don’t have to pay extra to take the dual-enrollment classes for either kind.
The district charges Southside Virginia Community College and Danville Community College teachers’ salaries, and both colleges charge the school for students’ tuition. Those dollar figures end up being a wash, Ms. Stanley said.
Dual-enrollment courses are offered at the high school and three other sites within a five-minute drive. The school buses about 1,000 students to those sites during the regular school day; those classes end up being about 30 minutes shorter than the ones at the high school to compensate for the travel time.
The biggest off-campus site for dual-enrollment courses is the district’s STEM center, for science, technology, engineering, and math, which is housed in a renovated shoe factory. Students also take dual-enrollment courses in a barn, which is the district’s preveterinary center, and at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, where they learn about graphic design and high-performance manufacturing. All the sites are either in the town of Halifax or in nearby South Boston.
Researchers haven’t figured out yet whether there’s an ideal model for the structure of dual-enrollment courses. They have found that strong programs mimic a college environment and support the enrolled students.
Studies also have shown dual enrollment encourages college readiness and college completion. Dual-enrollment participants are more likely than their nonparticipating peers to enroll in college, and they tend to have better college grade point averages, said Melinda Karp, a senior research associate at Teachers College, Columbia University. Halifax County parents, students, and teachers say they’re seeing the benefits of the dual enrollment, too.
Michael Good is a senior at Halifax County High. He plans to be a surgeon, and he’ll earn an associate degree by the time he graduates next spring. He compared the difficulty of his dual-enrollment courses to that of Advanced Placement classes, and he said he expects the dual-enrollment classes to prepare him for the kind of work his college professors will expect.
“I feel like it will give me at least a jump on my general studies classes,” he said.
Ms. Wilborn said the atmosphere of her precalculus classes is more like that of college. Students receive a syllabus, and they don’t need a hall pass to go to the restroom.
“I have the same expectations that a college would,” she said.
One of the big pluses of dual-enrollment courses is financial. Students can save thousands of dollars in college tuition by completing some of their coursework while in high school.
Ms. Crews, the 2011 Halifax County High graduate who now attends Jefferson College—a small private school that costs about $32,000 a year—said she saved two years of college tuition. What’s more, she’ll be able to earn her master’s degree in occupational therapy in the same four-year span that another student would need to earn a bachelor’s degree.
School leaders say dual enrollment is doing a good job of preparing rural students for and encouraging them to go to college.
“This is the one program that is most beneficial to rural students to advance them on beyond high school,” Mr. Stapleton said. “It’s a great program that really does work for students.”
Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education, at www.luminafoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2012 edition of Education Week as Rural District Nurtures Demand for Dual Enrollment