Back to school: Dual enrollment, early college programs a boon for area high schoolers

  • Holyoke Community College has three dual enrollment programs. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/20/2019 3:44:34 PM

HOLYOKE — College unaffordability. Increased competition for spots at prestigious local institutions of higher education. The inaccessibility of college. Decreased academic offerings at high schools struggling with budget woes.

These are all challenges and problems that local high schoolers face. But a series of programs in the state are providing some solutions.

For a high schooler looking to take college courses or students with intellectual disabilities experiencing campus life with their peers, so-called dual enrollment programs are expanding across the state. And with them come the benefits of college coursework while students are still attending area high schools.

“I think there’s always an advantage for students of any age from having experiences with an older peer group,” said William Diehl, executive director of Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton. “It’s a pretty different way of interacting with your education, and I think high schoolers having exposure to that helps them build their self confidence, helps them build those life skills that are important for that next stage.”

Often, people think about “dual enrollment” as a monolithic program — namely, talented high schoolers double dipping in both college and high school classes. But Diehl explained that there are actually three distinct programs in the state that offer different experiences to students — traditional, early college and inclusive concurrent enrollment for students with intellectual disabilities.


The first such program is the traditional dual enrollment program, which is largely supported by a state grant for partnerships between schools and colleges. Students at a high school enroll in one or two classes at a local college or university, and can earn college credit by passing a test at the end of the semester.

“It might be online, it might be going to take classes, it might be that a teacher comes to the school,” Diehl said.

Diehl said that for a long time, dual enrollment was almost totally geared toward high-achieving students, but that is changing.

“Increasingly, and I think also fortunately, it’s being used to encourage students who wouldn’t typically go to college to go to college,” Diehl said.

In Northampton, for example, students can dual enroll at area community colleges, where they can receive college credit. The students can be those taking honors or AP classes, or those who are on college prep and vocational tracks. Students can also take courses at Smith College, but are not matriculated at the school and don’t receive college credit.

Early college

A second program is known as early college, and is meant to create partnerships between school districts or high schools and state colleges to give students the chance to take as many as 12 credit hours — particularly those who will be the first in their families to attend college.

One local school district that has made a large commitment to its early college program is Holyoke, which has partnerships with both Holyoke Community College and Westfield State University.

The district already has high school “academies,” in which students decide in 10th grade a specific focus — visual performing arts, for example, or technology, engineering and design. Those focused programs dovetail with the courses students take in college.

Currently, there are around 250 kids taking dual enrollment or early college courses in the district. That’s up from just 20 students four years ago, Superintendent Stephen Zrike said. The programs, which get funding from the state, are a significant benefit for students, he said.

“The savings for them and their families is significant,” Zrike said. And the rigor of the program is also important, he added. “It pushes them at a time in kids’ lives when they will disengage.”

That was the case for Dominick Garcia, 18, who completed three courses at Westfield State during his junior and senior years.

“I was going through a lot of struggles in high school, but I think the college workload, it really got me into gear and I think it made me a better high school student,” Garcia said.

Garcia will attend the university as a first-year student this fall. As the first person in his family who will attend a university, he said he was scared at first about the idea of college. But now, he said he feels like he can do it.

“It’s a big adjustment to go into it, but the program definitely helps you feel ready that you can handle a college workload,” Garcia said. “I feel that I have much more of an understanding of the expectations of what college professors are going to be looking for come the fall semester.”

The state has made a significant commitment to early college, and one of the local colleges offering those opportunities is HCC. Renee Tastad, dean of enrollment management, said dual enrollment and early college enrollment has spiked at HCC in recent years. The college expects as many as 600 early college students this coming year.

“It gives students an opportunity to grow and explore academically in a way that they’re not going to be able to if they stay on their high school campus,” Tastad said.

Intellectual disabilities

Another significant program in the state is the Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative, or MAICEI, which offers grants for high school students with intellectual disabilities to take part in classes and campus life at local colleges.

Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools is a local district that participates in the program, which is grant-funded in the first year before gradually being built into a district’s own budget within five years. The school district has had partnerships with Westfield State and the University of Massachustts Amherst for five years.

The program is for 18 to 22 year olds, and allows them to sit in on one class a semester alongside their peers. Crystal Cartwright, a transition specialist in the district, said that the program has four components: academic, social-emotional, employment and healthy lifestyles. A paraprofessional accompanies each student to campus, where they attend class, use the gym, have lunch in the dining commons and spend time with a peer mentor.

“My students, they progressed so much in their self determination and independent living skills,” Cartwright said.

From learning to ride the bus to making appointments, students learn essential skills that their peers are also learning on campus. “Being part of the MAICEI program at the college campus, you can see within one year how much they increase those skills,” she said.

Cartwright said that over the course of the program, the students increase their independence as the paraprofessional pulls back and allows that independence to grow. And the program is growing as more districts join in, Cartwright added. The state just announced, for example, that it is awarding Westfield State a nearly $100,000 grant to enhance the program at the university.

“It opens the doors to students who never had the opportunity to go to college, to have that experience and go to school with their same-age peers instead of having to stay in the high school for another four years,” Cartwright said. “It really helps them be a part of their community, build new friendships … taking ownership of their life, picking what they want to participate in.

“It’s just different than high school so just having the opportunity to experience college like everyone else is just amazing,” Cartwright added.

Dusty Christensen can bereached at
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