Easing the Transition from High School to College

Minnesota community college hosts a full-fledged high school on its campus, where students take career-oriented courses while earning college credits. The model is catching on.
November 21, 2008

Eight years ago, Anoka Technical College in Anoka, Minn. was nearly shut down by the state college system. Its aging facilities needed updating, programs were shrinking in number and seen as failing to meet the needs of the surrounding area, and enrollment was drying up. Its fortunes, however, have changed, following the founding of a relative oddity on a two-year college’s campus: a full-fledged high school.

The Anoka-Hennepin Secondary Technical Education Program (STEP) is a high school, now entering its seventh school year, located on the campus of the technical college, which is about 20 miles northwest of Minneapolis. It serves 11th and 12th grade students who take career-oriented courses while earning college credits. STEP offers programs for college credit in 20 different fields including medicine, information technology, advanced automotive, law enforcement and engineering.

Though some charter high schools are situated on the campuses of their sponsoring four-year institutions, and a growing number of community colleges are offering college-credit courses to local high school students via dual enrollment and "early colleges," STEP takes the college-preparatory model to another level. Unlike these models, STEP students integrate with college faculty and students on a daily basis while in a separate brick and mortar high school on a shared campus.

This semester, the school has about 80 full-time students -- who also take all of their core academic classes such as English, math, science and social studies at the high school -- and 900 part-time students from the five other high schools in its district. Since STEP’s founding in fall 2002, its enrollment has grown from about 500 students a year to more than 1,400 last year. Its student population mirrors that of its school district, consisting of nearly 20 percent members of racial minority groups. Most of its students have a grade point average in the “low B” and “C” range.

“The majority of our students are kids in the middle,” said Ginny Karbowski, STEP director and principal. “Most of these students would have gotten a job right out of high school but think they can go on to college. These are the students we’re trying to identify. We promote this as a high school in a college setting where you can earn college credit at no cost. We expect our students to act like college students. It helps them realize the transition.”

STEP has not conducted a major follow-up study of its graduates because it often cannot identify who its students are -- they officially graduate from their sponsoring high school. Karbowski and others, however, point to some of the data it collected through a federal grant to illustrate the immediate success of the high school.

Not only did a review of the classes of 2004 and 2005 find that their grade point averages improved while attending STEP, it also found that its students earned more college credits (an average of 14 per student) than did their peers at other district high schools, who averaged 2.5 per student. Still, STEP’s overall graduation rate mirrors that of other high schools in the district, at around 91 percent last year. Additionally, in the fall of 2004, 65 percent of its graduates reported they were attending a postsecondary institution -- near the national average of 66 percent. Karbowski estimates that nearly a third of the STEP graduates who attend college immediately enroll in Anoka Technical College.

This new influx of enrollees to the two-year college has helped Anoka Tech predictably enroll students, said Anne Weyandt, Anoka’s president, helping to overcome previous enrollment drops. She added that students from the college’s neighboring high school turn out to be some of Anoka’s best students.

“I see students that are better prepared and have a higher number of credits than most high school students,” Weyandt said of those who continue on to pursue an associate degree at Anoka. “Initially, we thought we’d be running a glorified high school and that we would have to dumb down the curriculum to meet the needs of secondary learners. However, we’ve made good choices. We’ve broken down the artificial barriers that exist between high school and college.”

Some of the community college's professors also teach high school students through STEP. Bob Evans, for example, teaches electronics engineering technology to college students and pre-engineering to high school students. As someone who has taught some of the same students at both levels, Evans wrote in an e-mail that STEP students tend to be more engaged and perform better than others in his college-level classes because they have been exposed to the material for a longer period of time. To try to integrate his students at both levels, Evans invites his high school students to tour his college labs and view the capstone projects his second-year college students are preparing. He also encourages his high school students to “shadow” one of his college students for part of an instructional day.

“The more often we have STEP students in our college building, the more comfortable they are, and the greater chances of them enrolling at [Anoka] upon graduation,” wrote Evans in an e-mail, saying that his only complaint with the program was that scheduling often did not allow for these students to interact more often.

The high school-community college model at Anoka has attracted attention from all around the state. STEP averages about 1-2 tours of visiting educators a week during its school year, and it has received nearly $3 million in grants -- between funds received by its district and the community college -- over the past six years. STEP was also a founding partner of the Alliance for Successful Student Educational Transitions, a group dedicated to meeting the need of businesses for skilled workers by bridging the gap between high schools and technical colleges.

Following the model used by Anoka, Saint Paul College -- a two-year institution in St. Paul, Minn. -- started a high school program on its campus this fall called the Saint Paul Careers Pathway Academy. Unlike Anoka, the program does not yet have any full-time students. Instead its first cohort of 80 students, all juniors and seniors, are bused to the college in the afternoon from their home high schools to take college-credit courses toward a career path of their choosing.

The program already has a long waiting list, said Peggy Kennedy, Saint Paul College's vice president for academic affairs, adding that it hopes to double its enrollment next year. Students who successfully complete two years in the program should have at least eight college credits completed before they graduate high school.

“There are all kinds of programs for gifted and talented students and a lot of programs for students with needs, but there are often no programs for students in the middle,” Kennedy said. “That’s what I liked about STEP. We’re excited about the process of developing our own program.”


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