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Booming West Aurora program lets high school students earn college credit

Senior Briseidy Andrade second from left discusses point during Dual Credit class West AurorHigh School Friday March 22 2013. |

Senior Briseidy Andrade, second from left, discusses a point during a Dual Credit class at West Aurora High School on Friday, March 22, 2013. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 28, 2013 6:09AM

AURORA — On the Friday afternoon before spring break at West Aurora High School, Carly Hill’s Freshman Composition II students were in the middle of an animated discussion. As they reviewed a lawsuit against McDonald’s, there were two subjects at odds: Corporate greed and personal responsibility.

“It’s not a simple issue and that’s what we’ve been talking about all year,” Hill told her class before handing out the details for their research paper, which they were to work on during their vacation.

“Miss Hill, I’m dropping out,” joked Ivan Rangel, 18, as he reviewed the requirements: eight to 10 pages, six credible sources and an annotated bibliography. The class laughed. “If we do just the minimum, we can get a C?” Rangel asked earnestly.

The 16 students in Hill’s class are part of West High’s growing dual-credit program with Waubonsee Community College, in which juniors and seniors can take advanced-level courses for both college and high school credit. As part of an Illinois initiative, those credits are accepted at any public university and some private institutions.

Hill’s class was one of several added this year as West High’s dual-credit program expanded from 11 courses to 31, and from 57 students to 687. The high school also added English and math developmental classes this year, aimed at helping students bypass remedial classes before starting introductory-level college courses.

Next school year, West High is adding nine new dual-credit course titles, with a focus on technical careers and science and math, and for the first time students who take enough credits will be able to graduate high school with an associate’s degree.

Administrators expect next fall’s dual-credit enrollment to surpass this year’s.

“The most exciting thing to me is I can finally say there is something for every child,” said Shawn Munos, West High’s assistant principal for teaching and learning. “We can help you as far as we can push you. That was the ultimate goal.”

Popular concept

Dual credit is not a new concept, said Dora Phillips, Waubonsee’s community education program developer, who works on the dual-credit programs in West and East Aurora, Kaneland, Geneva, Batavia, Oswego, Oswego East and at Rosary High.

Proponents of dual credit see it as a way to challenge students, save them money and provide them with additional course offerings. The courses are free for students and Waubonsee charges the high school a $5 “activity fee” per student to cover the cost of counseling, advising and registration.

In general, Phillips said, dual credit has grown — both Batavia and Rosary High are expanding their offerings next year, too — for two reasons. Cash-strapped parents and students saw the benefits during the recession and President Obama tasked community colleges with helping more students complete their programs, which led to high school collaboration.

West High began offering dual credit nearly two decades ago with certified nursing and phlebotomy, but in recent years, the program has grown in leaps and bounds. It is now the largest in the Fox Valley, partly because many West High teachers have master’s degrees in their subject matter, which allows them to teach at the college level.

This year, the school offered dual-credit courses as varied as financial accounting, cosmetology, web development, welding, psychology and Spanish for native speakers. Next year, the school will add two biology classes, two computer-assisted design classes, calculus and business statistics.

Balancing act

Counselors and teachers caution that as dual-credit programs grow, it’s important not to push students into enrolling if they’re not ready to do the work. Students who don’t do well in a dual credit class can start college on academic probation.

According to Munos, 83 percent of West High dual-credit students scored a “C” or higher during the first semester of the school year — the minimum to receive college credit. Of the 687 students who initially enrolled, 50 had withdrawn by the end of the semester.

Debra Quinn, West High’s director of school counselors, said recommending dual credit to students is a fine balancing act for advisors, who can’t push students too hard, or let them take a course just to save money.

“You want to encourage them to reach and challenge themselves, but not where you’re getting Ds and Fs,” Quinn said. “The money saving is the icing on the cake.”

To prevent that, the school has taken several steps. The dual-credit conversation starts in middle school when students receive pamphlets about the program, as well as Waubonsee’s recently published dual-credit handbook. Students also have to fill out their dual-credit paperwork when they register for the class, instead of when they start the semester, so it seems more real.

Munos says part of the appeal of the dual-credit program is that students can take college-level courses, with a “safety net” of high school supports.

“We have extra time with them, we can talk to their parents,” Munos said. There’s in-school tutoring and class sizes are smaller than a freshman lecture hall, so teachers can spend more one-on-one time with students.

Freedom and

In Hill’s dual-credit English class, she realizes that students struggle with the independence of a college class. Students are reluctant to break out of the standard five-paragraph essay format they learn in high school, she said, and often lack a sophisticated vocabulary.

So she builds in vocabulary and grammar lessons, implements step-by-step deadlines to help students stay on track and permits struggling students to meet with her outside of class so they can review extra drafts.

Hill says this semester, she’s trying to pull away some of those safety nets as her students progress.

“That’s the concern I have,” Hill said of helping her students too much. “It’s nice to give them the extra supports, but I need to step back and let them find their own mistakes.”

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