August 11, 2009–When Isamar Padilla entered Middle College Early College four years ago she knew that her mother, who was raising her on her own, could not afford to pay for her college tuition. But Isamar knew she would not only be able to go to college, she would go for free.
This fall, she will begin her fifth year at Middle College Early College. There she will continue taking tuition-free college courses at LaGuardia Community College, where she has already earned 46 credits toward her associate degree.
“I knew that I would not have to end up like my cousins who had to find work after graduating high school because they could not pay for college,” said Isamar. “Middle College Early College offers me a great opportunity to take college courses for free and graduate with a degree in travel and tourism.”
Isamar will be joined by 61 of her fellow Middle College Early College 2009 classmates (out of a class of 98) who have decided to stay a fifth year. According to Linda Siegmund, principal of Middle College Early College, this number represents a dramatic increase over previous years, where on average, between 25 to 30 students out of a graduating class of 100 decided to stay on.
“They are staying for a lot of different reasons, but the prevailing reason is the economy,” she added. “By staying one more year, some students can get enough credits to enter college as an advanced sophomore, while others can obtain enough credits to graduate LaGuardia with an associate degree.”
With college tuition skyrocketing and the economy slowly recovering from a crippling recession, for many of its students, Middle College Early College is proving to be an attractive option. Middle College, which was established in 1974 as an alternative high school by the New York City Board of Education and LaGuardia, was redesigned in 2002 as an Early College when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded LaGuardia $7.6 million to create similar small schools throughout the country. These special institutions would allow minority and disadvantaged youngsters who were struggling academically to follow an accelerated path that would lead to a combined high school diploma and associate degree in five years.
“Programs like Early College provide a much more efficient way for kids and their families to experience moving through the educational system,” said Dr. Cecilia Cunningham, director of Middle College National Consortium, a nationwide network to which Middle College belongs. “The intent is to get them started in college right away so that they can get the experience.”
Christian Garcia, another graduate who because of economic reasons decided to stay a fifth year, said the program is a “win-win” for the student. “For someone like me who knows he wants to go to college, but is not quite ready, MCEC allows me to explore options while taking college courses.”
Over time the Early College paradigm has been redesigned. Instead of having students work toward an associate degree, the revised mission is to encourage them to earn up to two years of college credits. Under this new direction, Ms. Siegmund said that the new goal is to have 70 percent of their students graduate with at least 24 credits by the fourth year. It now stands at 25 percent.
“Research shows that if students have 24 credits they are more likely to continue their education,” she said. “Those who have less credits have not built the academic momentum that is needed to succeed.”
While the goal has shifted, Dr. Cunningham noted that those Middle College Early College students who decide to stay the fifth year successfully achieve their academic goals. “Many get their associate degree while those who do not complete their studies after the year will go on their own and finish in the sixth year,” she said.
Isamar hopes to be an associate degree holder. After she receives her degree from LaGuardia, she plans on applying to Adelphi University to pursue a degree in psychology. “If I get a scholarship I will enroll right after LaGuardia,” she said. “If not, I will get a good job in the travel and tourism field and help my mom save up for my college tuition.”
Researchers applaud the program’s success in encouraging these students to not only receive their high school diploma but also earn college credit. And the program received an extra boost when President Obama, in a recent speech on education, called on Americans to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.
When Middle College Early College opened in 2002 it was the first early college in the nation, and remains the model for the 201 Early-College schools throughout the nation. Following Middle College Early College’s paradigm, these schools have their students enroll in high school courses in the ninth and tenth grades, and by the second half of the tenth, encourage them to begin taking college courses.
Those ready for college courses have three options available to them. There are courses, taught by a high school teacher, which are attended by the entire class. Other classes have a small group of high school students joining LaGuardia students. And when students are ready to be on their own they can take classes independently.
Throughout their college experience, students still are closely connected to the high school via strong support services. At any time they can turn to their high school teachers, tutors, counselors as well as a college counselor. “Traditionally, college students are on their own when it comes to seeking help,” said Dr. Cunningham. “At Early College they are required to take advantage of those services. There is always someone there to help and support them and there are college resources they can tap into.”
Dr. Cunningham noted that the support system is one of the reasons for the students’ 80 percent college course pass rate. “It just points to the fact that kids need a lot more mandated support during that transition to a new institution,” she said.
She went on to say that another reason for student success is LaGuardia’s long-term commitment to the school. Citing the latest report by the American Research Institute indicating that Early Colleges located on college campuses are more successful that those that are not, Dr. Cunningham said. “It is critical to maintain the relationship, the alignment and accessibility of support services,” she said. “And despite diminished resources from the state and city, LaGuardia still remains committed.”
“For the past 35 years, LaGuardia and Middle College Early College have forged a strong partnership that has allowed high school students who had been struggling academically to achieve academic success,” said Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia. “Through the Early College initiative, the partners are building upon that foundation and are sharing expertise and resources in order to expose these students to a college experience that will encourage them to continue their education.”
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Located in Long Island City, Queens in New York City, LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of New York, is a nationally recognized leader among community colleges. Founded in 1971, the College is recognized as an innovator in educating students who are under prepared for college work and/or are not primary English speakers. A catalyst for development in western Queens and beyond, LaGuardia serves New Yorkers and immigrants from 163 countries through over 50 majors and certificate programs, enabling career advancement and transfer to four-year colleges at twice the national average. Visit www.laguardia.edu to learn more.