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Michael Rosa recalls the day two years ago that Hostos Community College professor Roberta Michelle dropped his "Intro to Music" midterm exam on his desk. He had passed, but just barely. Not great, he thought, but OK for not studying.
Rosa hated studying when it came to memorizing facts, dates, and names—especially those of composers he'd never heard of and could hardly pronounce. He'd put minimal effort into the course so far, turning in the handful of required papers and taking listening quizzes in class, but ignoring all the other assignments.
As he threw his notebook in his backpack and headed toward the bridge to his high school building on the other side of the Grand Concourse, Rosa knew he wasn't going to turn in any assignments. He figured that, combined with the test score he'd just received, it was enough to earn him a failing grade. But he just didn't care.
Rosa, like the rest of his classmates at Hostos-Lincoln Academy, was taking community college courses as part of the Early College High School Initiative, a nationwide program that aims to get poor and minority students to graduate high school with associate's degrees or two years of transferable college credit. The initiative has opened more than 200 schools nationwide since 2002, 13 of them in New York City, targeting areas where high school graduation rates are low. The premise: that high expectations will motivate students and lead to success.
Yet the early-college schools soon learned that for students like Rosa, this goal was too ambitious. And it has taken Hostos years to settle on a better definition of success—and a way to get there.
Although the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation laid out the basic premise of the program and gave schools start-up grants, and the Early College High School Initiative provided some guidance, individual schools came up with their own plans to figure out how to fit in the demanding course load. Hostos was given only eight months to transform its school from a traditional high school to one that housed a middle school and an early-college high school.
The transition was not smooth. Over teachers' objections, the program was launched at full speed: All students would start college classes in ninth grade with one course each semester, and increase that number as more high school prerequisites were completed.
The assumption, says assistant principal Vincent Marano, was that while some kids might fail, the overall problems would fix themselves. "That frustrated me more than anything else," he says.
Hostos was already a success story at the time. The school—whose students are 99 percent minority, with two-thirds living at or below the poverty line—has traditionally graduated about 90 percent of its students in four years, and nearly the same percentage go to college. That's well above graduation rates that are closer to 50 percent in the rest of the South Bronx, where most of the students live.
Even so, getting 100 percent of students to accumulate 60 college credits each proved impossible; many students simply could not or did not know how to handle the work and emerged with F's on their transcripts.
"There was pressure," recalls Hostos guidance counselor Daniel Jackson. "I can't take you out; you're going to fall behind." As a result, with all the focus on receiving an associate's degree, students who struggled or even failed college courses continued to be enrolled in them. Jackson tried to keep everyone on the same track even if they or their teachers thought they weren't capable of the work.
In the end, only about a third of the 90 current seniors—the first Hostos class to go through this program—expect to receive associate's degrees. Another third will fall short of that goal but graduate with a significant amount of college credit. But many will also have poor grades to show for it.
Still, Hostos is ahead of the national statistics. In 2009, about 25 percent of early-college graduates nationwide received associate's degrees or two full years of college credit. The average early-college student nationwide graduates with just over 20 credits, less than a year's worth of college course work. The program had an 85 percent graduation rate nationwide, with 65 percent of its students accepted to four-year colleges.
One obstacle is that some students enter high school well below grade level, says Kathy Moran, a research associate at the Middle College National Consortium, which is comprised of small high schools located on college campuses, including 19 early-college schools. And other students might lack the maturity and skill sets to self-advocate and study effectively in a college course.
"If you expect youngsters to graduate in four years with 60 transferable credits, that's probably a stretch," Moran said. "It's realistic for everybody to essentially get one year of college under their belt."
A few years after the national program began, it changed its stated mission from requiring all students to earn 60 credits to giving them the opportunity to do so. After that, Jackson and his colleagues began to take a more flexible approach, concentrating less on the number of credits accumulated and more on preparing students on how to succeed in college once they get there. If students can learn how to do things like follow a syllabus or approach a professor with problems, faculty hope, they will be more likely to complete post-secondary education—even if they can't fit it all in while in high school.
Last year, all incoming ninth-graders were still enrolled in college courses, but they no longer had to stay on the track if it didn't work for them. This school year, the start of college courses was delayed, and ninth-graders were signed up for an extended seminar course in the fall that covers the basics, like how to take notes during a lecture or study for tests. (Previously, students took the seminar at the same time as their first college course.) If students prove during this time that they're mature enough to take a college course, they'll be enrolled in the spring.
Jackson eventually wants to avoid cases like that of Rosa, who had to endure struggles before learning how to be a college student. Yet Rosa eventually found success in college courses. He has since improved his grades and still wants to earn his associate's degree and transfer to a four-year college.
For Rosa, the benefit outweighs any drawbacks. Without the Early College High School Initiative, "I don't know what I'd be doing," he says. Instead of going to college, "I'd be confused and pissed off."