Merging high schools and community college classes in areas with a high number of Latino, Black and low-income students is emerging as a way to overcome disparities in who gets to take dual enrollment courses.
The schools, known as “early college” or “middle college” high schools, give students access to dual enrollment courses as early as middle school.
Megan Liu was one of those students who got the opportunity to take a dual enrollment class the summer after her eighth grade year — even before she had taken a high school course.
“It was definitely a very interesting experience that was semi-intimidating,” Liu said. “College classes were very different from middle school classes and the expectations were definitely much higher.”
Liu attended Mark Keppel High School’s early college program in Alhambra, which is connected to East Los Angeles College. The early college high school began in 2017 and made it possible for students to take college and high school classes for all four years. Liu’s first college class as a high schooler was in robotics — a field she says she didn’t have much experience in. But her parents encouraged her to give it a try, Liu said.
Four years later, Liu graduated this spring with more than 50 college credits. That’s not enough for an associate degree, but she did complete the Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum, commonly known as IGETC, the series of classes community college students use to satisfy freshman- and sophomore-level general education requirements to the University of California.
The same courses allowed her to start college with a full year’s credit at a private college. Despite it being her first year at California Baptist University, she has sophomore status at the private university in Riverside, where she is studying exercise science.
“Dual enrollment knocked out a lot of my (general education requirements) that I had to take, so right from the start, I’ve been able to take more major-related requirements and classes,” she said. “It also gives me more opportunities to explore and to take other electives I might be interested in and see if I like those fields or if I remain in my own major.”
How many of these schools are there? No one can say.
Early college or middle college high schools differ from traditional dual enrollment classes offered in and outside a traditional high school in a few ways. But in California, it’s not unusual for dual enrollment programs to use the terms interchangeably.
The California Department of Education defines a middle college high school as one that is located on a college campus. Early college high schools are “innovative” partnerships with community colleges, the California State University, or the University of California system that allow students to earn a high school diploma and up to two years of college credit in a “blended” program.
Most of these partnerships are made with community colleges. However, neither the Chancellor’s Office nor the California Department of Education has an accurate count of how many such schools exist in the state.
Peter Callas, the director of career and college transition for the Department of Education, learned when he first began working in the high school innovations and initiatives office that the department didn’t know how many programs would fall under the office’s umbrella. At that time, the department estimated that there were about 95 programs.
“So that’s one of the things we need to fix, and I’ve been trying to for a while now, but we just haven’t gotten there,” he said.
Callas told a crowd gathered at the annual conference for the California Coalition of Early & Middle Colleges this year that he is interested in growing these programs. He wants to ensure they can tap into state and federal funds dedicated to these programs.
“So it’s interesting we have these programs out there, highly successful,” he said. “We know where some of them are. We may have another 10 or 15 of them we still need to locate and make sure we know what we need to do to support them.”
The Public Policy Institute of California attempted to count the number of early and middle college programs across the state and found 26 early college high schools, or ECHS, and 17 middle college high schools, or MCHS. Early colleges were disproportionately located in the San Francisco Bay and Central Valley regions. In contrast, middle colleges dominated the Central Valley, Inland Empire and San Diego-Imperial Valley regions, according to the report.
Students participating in these early and middle college high schools “basically were recruited in middle school and came into the high school knowing that they were going to be part of this special program and that one of the goals was to try to get them to complete up to 60 college credits,” said Olga Rodriguez, director of PPICs Higher Education Center.
Early and middle college high schools have existed in California for decades. However, they often haven’t reflected the state’s K-12 diversity or high school population, Rodriguez said.
An EdSource analysis revealed that the state’s community college districts largely fail to reflect the demographics of the high schools located in the district within their dual enrollment programs.
“There’s this perception that these schools at the middle and early college high schools are for what they call ‘the smart kids,’” Rodriguez said, adding that the perception might deter some students who have had negative experiences with teachers and counselors, or who don’t view themselves as a “smart kid,” from even applying. “There was some work to address that and do more outreach to the community and to students to encourage them and change their perception of who can come to these schools.”
Some community colleges and high school districts, like East Los Angeles College, are working to change that so more diverse students can participate in early college high schools.
“We found that regionally there is a large gap in college knowledge,” said Miguel Duenas, vice president of student affairs at the college. “There is a lack of understanding of what early college access does for a student, especially one from a disproportionately impacted demographic or low socioeconomic status; the impact is much greater.”
Duenas said the early exposure increases the student’s ability to access college in the future.
Taking sociology in high school
Diego Aranda, a sophomore at Aspire Ollin University Preparatory Academy in Huntington Park, participates in the early college program at East Los Angeles College. The dual enrollment classes can also satisfy high school graduation requirements. In his Sociology 101 class, Aranda said, the lecture style of the college course leads him to take more notes and depend a little more on caffeine than in a typical high school class.
“Every class, you’re taking notes. It’d be like three pages,” Aranda said, comparing the frequency to that of his English class, where he was used to taking notes every two weeks.
Nonetheless, pushing ahead with this class has been important to Aranda, who finds himself in its second-story classroom every Friday after the regular school day ends. He said the details and thoroughness of the class has opened his mind to a broad range of perspectives as he’s learned about social structure and beyond.
“I’ve ruined a lot of my Fridays like this,” said Aranda, smiling. “But, at the end, it’s got to be worth it. I want to do this class because I want to get somewhere in life, get offered scholarships. My parents — they want to do everything for me. And you know, I don’t want them to pay more than they already pay for 18 years of my life.”
For Aranda’s classmate, senior Danny Rizo, taking the sociology class has helped ease some of his nerves about college as he nears graduation from high school. Rizo said he didn’t know what to expect at the beginning of the semester, especially from his professor, but as the class progressed, the intimidation eased. It still feels different though, he said.
“It’s just kind of different because you’re kind of nervous,” Rizo said. “This is a college class. You’re more nervous when talking to a professor than when talking to the teacher. It’s like, oh, I see this teacher every day, the professor I see like, once a week.”
East Los Angeles’s efforts are part of the Dual Enrollment for Equitable Completion initiative, which receives funding from the College Futures Foundation and the Gates Foundation to improve dual enrollment and college completion for Black, Latino and low-income students.
But even if high school students don’t completely submerge themselves in an early college program, the college wants to expose them to at least one course. And they have support from the local school district leadership that has expressed wanting every high school student to take at least one dual enrollment course, Duenas said.
“That raises the bar for everyone,” Duenas said. “We’ve heard stories where students that were doing poorly in high school classes took dual enrollment and had a whole shift in their demeanor toward education.”
An early college magnet
Pasadena City College District took a similar approach about four years ago when it helped convert John Muir High School to an early college magnet school.
“When we first started this partnership, we were very intentional in terms of understanding that the majority of the students at John Muir are Black and brown,” said Raquel Torres-Retana, a campus dean over the district’s educational partnerships.
The Pasadena district has been able to enroll Black and Latino students for dual enrollment courses on par with their numbers in area high schools, an EdSource analysis found. Students at the high school have the opportunity in their freshman year to opt into the early college program, or they can take traditional dual enrollment classes.
“We open it up to anybody,” Torres-Retana said. “The early college program is not intended to be a certificate-granting program. It’s not intended to be an associate degree-granting program. It is to give students exposure to a college course. Some of them will choose to put it toward transferring to a four-year institution; others will choose to come to (Pasadena City College) and continue to a degree or certificate.”
And some students do complete an associate degree while in high school, she said.
Starting an early college program isn’t easy and can be a years-long process. Sacramento City College is in the middle of doing just that in Sacramento City Unified and Washington Unified school districts.
The college, which is also part of the Dual Enrollment for Equitable Completion initiative with East LA, was awarded a Hispanic-serving institution federal grant in 2020 to start an early college program, not just for Latino high schoolers, but for students from all sorts of disadvantaged communities. The college has already set up an agreement with Davis Unified.
“We’ve had dual enrollment opportunities housed in different parts of our campus here and there, but never something really formalized or structured,” said Rosana Chavez-Hernandez, director of the early college program at Sacramento City College.
But now, the culture has shifted, and college and high school officials want to provide “these access opportunities for students who never considered themselves college-going or didn’t really know what college options existed,” she said.
In the meantime, the college is just raising awareness about dual enrollment by using targeted recruitment practices like working with Spanish-speaking and bilingual parent-teacher associations to spread the word about the program. The high schools in the Davis area, which is more rural and has Latino families that may come from migrant communities, have also been helpful, she said.
“They recognize — and I say this respectfully — that they need to do better when it comes to serving our communities of color,” Chavez-Hernandez said. “They were very much on board with supporting our students who come from underserved communities, and there hasn’t been much resistance from our high school partners.”
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. For example, the college hasn’t been able to get some agreements with K-12 districts because everything has to be by vetted labor unions in both the high schools and the colleges, she said.
“You don’t want to necessarily take jobs from folks or compete with any existing course offerings,” Chavez-Hernandez said. So, as the college develops its “menu of courses” for an early college program, the college and the high schools have to have candid conversations about what works for each location.
One additional challenge is simply merging schedules, she said, because high school bell schedules are different from college.
“Just determining when is the best time to offer a class if it’s not online,” she said. “Is it during after-school hours? Is that attractive to students? We’re just learning to navigate all those things.”
EdSource reporters Emma Gallegos and Kate Sequeira contributed to this report.
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