The number of Kentucky students taking college courses has increased in recent years and many high school schools have formed partnerships with colleges and universities to help bridge the gap between the levels of education.
But college readiness, which is a large part of Kentucky’s accountability system, is a hard thing to measure.
Eminence High School in Henry County is in its second year of a program that buses students to Bellarmine University and next fall Jefferson County’s Male High School is preparing to do the same. Eminence students say it wasn’t easy transitioning to a college campus and there were a lot of first year growing pains.
Last year around this time, many Eminence High School students like junior Trevor Peyton wanted to quit attending classes at Bellarmine University.
“They graded a lot harder,” he recalls.
The lectures were more intense, the way he studied changed and even the note taking was different, he says.
About 30 Eminence students are bused to Bellarmine twice a week to take college courses and earn college credit. These dual enrollment and dual credit opportunities have been around for a long time and their popularity in Kentucky has grown.
In 2001, 11.8 percent of Kentucky high school juniors and seniors took dual credit or dual enrollment courses, according to a report conducted for the education department and the Council on Postsecondary Education.
In 2010, it was 27.8 percent.
Students can also take Advanced Placement and other college level courses on their high school campuses. But actually attending college or a university is a totally different experience, says Senior Clayton Rader.
“They’re definitely more difficult than high school classes because you’re not in the same environment. It’s more independent. You definitely have to be self motivated. Nobody is going to tell you what to do,” he says.
On the roughly hour-long bus ride from Henry County to Bellarmine some students catch up on sleep while others use the wireless internet to study.
This was a commitment from the school board, Principal Shannon Treece says.
The courses are paid for by the school district and they’re not cheap. Even with a discount Bellarmine applies, it costs around $2,000 per student, or $60,000 total a year, she says. But the program takes the place of training teachers for AP classes that would otherwise be offered and Eminence has a small enough student body to make it work, Treece says.
“It was a question of how can we offer these students higher level courses and make it rigorous and make it worthy of their time and something that they want to do,” she says.
When students get off the bus, they head to class with college professors and do college work. It’s a transition that many of their peers will do after they’ve graduated high school.
This program allows them to attend college class together in a cohort for the first year. It helps them get over those early college jitters that Bellarmine teacher Bonnie Johnson says most freshmen students have.
“They’re a little more reluctant to enter into class discussions immediately. We have to spend quite a bit of time building that trust factor and community before they feel completely comfortable,” she says.
At the same time the program helps integrate students by bringing in college resource speakers to educate Eminence students about college tuition, how dorms work and what the college culture is like.
“I think that it helps with every aspect of college,” says senior Abigail Zinser. “It helps to see what kind of major you want to major in, what kind of campus life you’d be interested in. Bellarmine is a little bit smaller so if you don’t like a smaller school maybe you’d want to go to more of a public university,” she says.
Bellarmine hopes that the students will attend the school after they graduate high school, says Graham Ellis, the university’s assistant vice president for academic affairs and a liaison to the program. The program is an opportunity for Bellarmine to show off what it can offer, and it’s an a chance for students to get their feet wet in college culture.
Studies have shown that dual enrollment programs have been successful at keeping students in college, and Eminence students say it would help anyone who plans on going to college. Several students who fill out federal aid forms never make it to college.
It’s a national issue called “summer melt” and in Jefferson County the number of students who have filled out FAFSA forms but who aren’t in college in the fall increased from 11 to 19 percent, according to the city’s 55,000 Degrees education initiative progress report.
At Bellarmine, these students are able to take general education courses including writing and geography, which are recognized by many universities, officials say. That’s not always the case with dual credit and dual enrollment courses, especially once Eminence students start taking classes they choose in the second semester.
Several reports like this one from Minnesota Public Radio caution students that some credits might not be transferable.
But despite having to balance both high school and college work and feeling the typical college pressures the first year, Eminence students are doing pretty well, Ellis says.
“I get e-mail from faculty saying wow those Eminence students, they’re doing really well. I had one e-mail saying I can deal with 100 of them,” he says.
More opportunities for high schools to partner with college and universities are popping up. There are some online courses students can take, some teachers with credentials can teach college level classes on high school campuses.
But these Eminence students say nothing can replace their experience of being on a college campus.