High Schools and Colleges Combine to Help Lower-Income Students Succeed

There’s an order to traditional education. After elementary school comes middle school or junior high, then high school, then college. And though high school dropout rates are on the decline nationally, from 15% in 1970 to 8.1% in 2009, the percentage of lower-income dropouts continues to be well over the national average. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 15.8% of students whose income level was in the lowest quartile dropped out of high school in 2009, while only 2.5% of students with a family income that placed them within the top 25% dropped out. The 13.3% gap in dropouts based on income begs the question: is following the traditional order really the way to help lower-income students succeed in school?

Advocates of middle colleges like Prince George’s Public Schools Academy of Health Sciences in Largo, Md., featured in the Washington Post, would say no, arguing instead that placing high school freshmen on community college campuses can provide just the right atmosphere for students who are driven, but have lacked opportunities for success in the past. The concept appealed to potential students, who applied in droves. Out of 985 applicants, the school accepted and enrolled 100. In this academy, geared toward students interested in pursuing health careers, ninth graders take traditional high school courses such as English and biology as they get acquainted with college life. By their junior year of high school, students are expected to be fully immersed in the college, using meal plans and enrolled in classes taught by professors.

The concept of middle college is not new, according to the Middle College National Consortium, which says the first school geared at providing a seamless transition from secondary to post-secondary education opened in New York in 1974. Since the consortium was founded, 35 middle colleges have joined its membership ranks and there are arguably other schools nationwide not part of the organization. The locations of middle colleges are key, according to the consortium, not only logistically for students to attend classes but also symbolically, to show students that college transition is not only possible, but natural as well.

It’s too early to know if Prince George’s will be as successful as administrators hope, as the school’s first summer orientation session ends this week. But if it achieves its desired enrollment of 100 students per grade over the next four years, each year, 100 lower-income students will become high school graduates instead of statistics. School officials hope their students will be like peers at the School Without Walls in Washington, D.C., which has a 100% graduation rate and 100% college acceptance rate. And when middle college students do enroll in college full-time, they have a leg-up over fellow students: many graduate middle college with enough credits to earn an associate degree and all have already overcome difficult circumstances.

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