Wednesday, May 15

A New Perspective on ECHS Programs

One of the things I’ve been reading a lot about recently (thanks to my job) is Early College High School (ECHS) programs. I admit that until recently I wasn’t a fan. This is largely because the primary program model I’ve been working with accepts only “under-served” students, which means minorities, potential first-generation college goers, and kids from families that fall below the poverty line – usually because they are single parent families or on public assistance. 

I get tired of “under-served” population programming very quickly, because it frustrates me to watch parents work their butts off and sacrifice for years to keep their marriage strong, provide their kids the support and discipline they need to do well in school,  and to support their families through any jobs they can get only to find their kids disqualified from programs that could have been amazing opportunities for them while Joe Shmoe’s six kids by five “baby mamas” get handed supports and opportunities they don’t appreciate (paid for by taxes they didn’t pay into) left and right.

But reading Is College Worth It (reviewed in a recent post) changed my perspective. I had forgotten until reading it that Project Lead the Way is an ECHS program – just a different model than the one I’ve been dealing with lately. My brother participated in PLTW when he was in high school, and it was a fantastic thing. A STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) based program, it took any students with an interest and skills in technology and let them earn college credit while still in HS that would transfer to two key local colleges – one a community college (to complete an Associate’s degree) and one a national leader in Technology degrees. I was fascinated to learn that a large percentage of projected jobs in the next several decades will require more than a HS diploma but less than a Bachelor’s degree.

The upshot? ECHS programs are a perfect tool to meet the demands of the coming decades.

Imagine for a moment the impact on the US economy if every child had access to an ECHS program. Not everyone would participate, course. Academically strong students seeking futures as doctors, lawyers, astrophysicists, or anything else that requires an advanced degree would do fine in a normal HS environment (though the current system could use some overhauling). But students headed into business, technology, nursing or other fields that require only Associates degrees to start could graduate from HS ready for the workforce! Can you picture the scale of the impact it would have on our economy if, instead of starting their work careers at 22 or 23 with a boatload of debt, students started their careers at 18 or 19 unencumbered? If they were able to earn competitive wages, support themselves and their families, start saving for a house and investing in a retirement fund that many years earlier? How much further ahead would they be in life at 30, 40 and 50 if we could give them this opportunity?

And what about the rest of us? ECHS programs leverage the strengths and resources of High Schools and Community Colleges – both taxpayer funded already. Don’t you want more bang for your buck? Getting kids two degrees in the time it used to take to get them one? Colleges spend billions of dollars annually on remedial courses and related support programs, essentially repeating the material students should have gotten in HS. The sad truth is that these programs suck down the funding and spit out little in the way of return on investment.

If you’re a more touchy-feely personality, there’s a less economic side to this argument as well. It’s a well-documented fact that a large proportion of students leaving HS and enrolling in our nation’s community colleges are academically unprepared to be there; they just didn’t get the education they needed in HS. A shockingly high number of these students never complete their degrees. They get mired in remedial classes and suffocate in discouragement until they quit, or they just can’t hack the college curricula and flunk out, burdened by debt and no more equipped to land a stable, good-paying job than they were before.  When these students can be re-routed, plugged into a BOCES or ECHS program that focuses on their skills and doesn’t require them to struggle through pre-requisite courses they’re not equipped for (English Comp 101, anyone?) they become confident, independent members of society with great jobs and strong careers.

So I’ve changed my tune on ECHS programs – I’m a fan! But only when such a program is done right; every child should have the opportunity to access the educational path best suited to their gifts and goals. (More ranting on that in another post, I’m sure.) In the meantime, I look forward to seeing more ECHS models developed and implemented and hope that this wonderful opportunity won’t be lost through political machinations and credit-mongering.

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