Power of 15 brings college to suburban high schools
When high school students walk across the stage at graduation, they typically get a handshake and a diploma before moving their tassel to the other side. But by next year, many Northwest suburban graduates will leave high school with a full semester of college credit as well.
Power of 15, an initiative based on the belief that students who leave high school with college credits are more likely to attend college and stay there longer, is being undertaken by the Northwest Education Consortium, made up of Harper College, Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Barrington Area Unit District 220.
It will redefine a student's high school senior year by making college-level classes available to all seniors -- in their own school -- says Laz Lopez, District 214's associate superintendent for curriculum.
According to a National Research Center for Career and Technical Education study, dual-credit classes increase the likelihood of students enrolling in a four-year institution. Students are also more likely to stay in college longer and have higher grade-point averages, according to the research.
"We want every student who graduates high school to be college-ready and to start college with credit," said Harper College President Kenneth Ender, who presented Power of 15 to educators at the White House College Opportunity Summit in November.
"We know that students who have college credit are more likely to continue getting college credit."
Power of 15 intends to create an easy transition so students see college as the natural next step.
"We want to create that bridge between high school and college so students recognize that a high school diploma isn't the end," Lopez said. "It's just the beginning."
The program has similar goals as President Barack Obama's recently announced initiative to make community college free -- to make college a natural extension of high school.
"Seniors sometimes experience a lack of motivation because they are ready to move on, but the hope is that Power of 15 increases the relevance and motivation for them to remain engaged during their senior year," Lopez said.
Through Power of 15, seniors will take courses -- English 101, Math 101, Speech 101, Physical Science 101 and Art 105 -- using Harper curriculum, but taught by their high school teachers in their regular classrooms. These classes, to be available at all 12 high schools in districts 211, 214 and 220, will start in the fall.
To enroll, students have to meet the prerequisites a normal Harper student would, such as a certain ACT score, depending on the class. Teachers have to meet higher standards, too, now that they will be teaching college classes.
Harper is reviewing the qualifications of hundreds of suburban high school teachers to make sure they are qualified, usually by having a master's degree in the subject area, to teach a college-level course.
"It's the same syllabus, the exact same course that is being taught at Harper. The only difference is it's being taught at the high schools," said Maria Moten, assistant provost and dean of enrollment services at Harper.
At the end of the course, the student's grade will appear not only on his or her high school report card, but also on a college transcript that the student can use at Harper or more than 100 other Illinois colleges and universities, and even some out-of-state schools.
And it will all be free, potentially creating a significant savings for students who would otherwise take those 15 credit hours at a community college or four-year institution.
Power of 15 is distinct from the Advanced Placement program, which offers 35 college-level courses to top high school students nationwide. AP classes are geared toward the top students, while Power of 15 is intended to reach the greater majority of students who are not taking AP but still could succeed in college -- making college credit available to thousands of students who may have never thought it was a possibility.
Dual credit is not new. For years, career and technical courses like forensic science, culinary skills and computer repair have been taught through community colleges at area high schools.
When Moten began at Harper 10 years ago, there were 500 students enrolled in dual-credit courses. By the end of the 2014-15 school year, that number will be 2,500 and rising.
Between college agreements and Advanced Placement, District 211 already offers 45 dual-credit classes. Power of 15 will bring that number to more than 50, said Lisa Small, associate superintendent for instruction. The key difference is these classes will be in core subject areas.
Rolling Meadows High School teacher Mike Drenth has seen the benefits of his dual-credit courses in A+ Computer Repair and Intro to Networking, in which students earn three credit hours each. They take an industry-recognized certification test -- 74 percent pass it -- that they can use to get a job or advance their education.
Taking a college class while still in high school provides more support for students because they meet more frequently than most college courses, plus they are still living at home and are not worried about the other stresses of college life, officials said.
"It gives me a safe environment to get a feel for what a college course would be," said Cullen Beutel, a senior at Rolling Meadows enrolled in Drenth's class.
"You go into college with more confidence because you're not going in empty-handed," agreed senior Liam Fruzyna.
Fruzyna and Beutel, both of Arlington Heights, are planning to study computer science at a four-year school after graduation. They hope the dual-credit courses they are taking now will save money and may even lead to early college graduation.
In a recent survey of current dual-credit students in the Northwest suburbs, 74 percent of respondents said they had a positive experience and were more confident about their ability to succeed in college, Moten said.
"It allows them to develop more realistic expectations about college and lets them prepare themselves academically, improve their study and time management skills before they really go off to college," she said.
As Power of 15 gets rolling, high schools may offer some courses with a blend of online and classroom time, another form of learning that many students experience in college.
"Having students experience time management a little differently than the very structured high school day would also be helpful in the transition to college," said Cindy Jaskowiak, assistant superintendent for educational programs and assessment at Barrington District 220.
Power of 15 received national recognition at the White House College Opportunity Summit, and Harper is considering hosting a national summit later this year to show high schools and colleges across the country how to form their own consortia. Ender would like to see a trend develop across the Chicago area, too.
"The more students in our community who earn a college degree, the better that is for all of us," Ender said, adding Harper is not concerned it may lose tuition in the long run if students are taking these classes in high school instead of in community college.
"We don't put a financial indicator on the success of students," he said.