TECHS offers students jump-start on collegeWritten by Danielle Stanton | | email@example.com
Patricia Jones is getting a jump-start on her college career as a student at Toledo Early College High School (TECHS). The 18-year-old senior — who plans to be the first of her family to attend college — is currently enrolled in six college courses, including sociology, trigonometry and creative writing. By high school graduation in May, Jones will have earned 60 college credits — an equivalent of two years of college — that can be applied toward a bachelor’s degree.
Jones is among 225 students participating in what is essentially a boot camp for college. TECHS is part of the Toledo Public Schools (TPS) system and works in partnership with the University of Toledo to help students earn college credit. The nine-year-old school is housed on the Scott Park campus, just a short bus ride away from UT’s college classrooms.
The course work is rigorous, accelerated and often difficult, yet the payoff is great, administrators said — students can earn up to an associate’s degree without paying tuition. Educators and students agree the school is not for everyone, yet students are succeeding, they said. However, one educational advocate wonders whether the school is truly meeting its original mission of educating the underprivileged.
Incoming students do not have to be “little geniuses” to attend, according to TECHS teacher Randy Nissen, but they must be willing to learn good study habits, such as organization, motivation and determination.
Prospective students must take a basic math and reading comprehension assessment, provide a writing sample and meet with a TECHS teacher and two TECHS students.
Teachers and administrators also look at classroom grades, standardized test scores, attendance and behavioral history to decide who is accepted or denied.
“We have to identify kids that are so deficient in math or reading it would be nearly impossible to bring them up to speed to take college classes,” Nissen said. “We’re not screening just to try to get top academic performers. We do not cherry-pick the district. Kids do not have to be straight-A, honor students … [but] we don’t want to set up kids for failure.”
Students at TECHS focus on a foreign language and four core high school classes: English, world history, biology and algebra or geometry. The rest are college courses, like gender studies, theater, African studies and communications.
“It’s probably more rigorous than an average TPS high school but the thing is, we provide a lot of support along the way,” Nissen said. “It’s rigorous but by no means impossible. The kids who struggle the most are not very diligent about keeping up with their work. With a little hard work and planning and good work ethic, kids succeed every day.”
“It is not something for every student, every teacher or every administrator,” said TECHS principal Robin Wheatley of the school. “We have had them across the ranks who didn’t like it.
“If you are not college-ready, you can’t graduate from [TECHS] so if you are not performing well academically you can’t stay,” she said. “You have to earn the credits.”
“It’s good for us,” Jones said of the rigorous coursework. She was part of a small group of students who gathered in a conference room Jan. 13 to discuss their experience at TECHS. “It’s a lot of work, we have a lot of homework, but it makes it so much easier when we go into college. We know what to expect.”
“I love it,” said junior Raven Neal-Jackson, 16, who said she enjoys learning the ropes of college ahead of the game. “I love the experience. … Tuition is paid for, books are paid for. … We get a really good college experience.”
Neal-Jackson will also be the first of her family to attend college. She earned a scholarship to Ohio State University, which is a “big thing” for her, she said.
The group of mostly seniors and juniors said they were not put off by the lack of sports or extracurricular activities, and rattled off a list of after-school events the school offers, like game night, a holiday festival and even a water fight. They all agreed the school was a challenge, but nothing they couldn’t handle.
Freshman Tierell McBeth said he has struggled with motivation, but agreed the teachers were very encouraging.
“It’s a lot more work than I’m used to and I procrastinate, but I’m getting better at it,” McBeth said.
“[The teachers] are like a lot of counselors — they help with anything,” said senior Benjamin Corey, who is applying to Northwestern, Purdue and Ohio State. “It’s cliché but, seriously, it’s like this big family.”
The rigors of the curriculum may have been too much for some students. The school saw a “handful” of students leave this year for various reasons, Nissen said. Some may have left because they missed their regular school or wanted to participate in a sport.
Nissen said although the school does not offer sports, students who want to play sports can do so at the school they would have attended if they want to make the extra effort.
“Many received good grades in junior high without really being challenged and they didn’t make the effort to adapt to the new rigorous (but by no means impossible) expectations,” Nissen said in an email about why students left. “Again, we do not expect them to enter our school as miniature college students. We meet them where they are but we immediately nurture and encourage and expect them to grow as students. Some don’t catch on.”
Nissen said the retention rate is starting to improve. The numbers don’t look good, but the percentage of those graduating is high.
The first graduating class in 2009 began with 93 students and graduated 45. In 2013, the class started with 85 and graduated 55, Nissen said. According to the state, the school’s graduation rate was 93 percent in 2012, compared to 64.6 percent for the district and 81.3 percent for the state, giving it an “A” rating.
“We have put in plans to work on retention,” said Jim Gault, TPS executive transformational leader of curriculum and instruction.
“You are going to have a loss of students in the first year because of the rigor and because it’s not a comprehensive high school.”
A student’s tuition is paid for in partnership by TPS, UT, some federal grant money and the state of Ohio, which gives an allotment per student.
Even with that cost, TECHS is less expensive for the district than a traditional high school because those schools pay for sports and extracurricular activities, said TPS treasurer Matt Cleland.
“The numbers show it’s more expensive in traditional high school and that’s because there’s more services,” Cleland said. “There’s [also] a higher rate of special education students.”
TPS used to pay UT $132.50 per credit hour and a flat fee of $35,000 for rental space of their offices on the Scott Park campus, said Dennis Lettman, dean of UT’s College of Adult and Lifelong Learning, who was part of the group of educators and others who started TECHS.
Under a new agreement recently signed by TPS and UT, the district will now pay a lump sum on an annual basis based on an enrollment of about 200 students. As the school increases its enrollment, it will pay less per student. Both UT and TPS said growing the school is their goal.
“I can’t give you an exact rate because it is variable based on the enrollment and credit hours taken by the students,” Lettman said. “The annual rate will be $300,000 including rental and other miscellaneous fees, but will be reduced for every student enrolled over 200.”
“With enough students, they can get it to zero,” Lettman said.
TPS and UT have a “strong partnership,” Lettman said, which benefits the students, the parents, TPS and UT.
“We’re helping the university by creating a pipeline of well-prepared students of a diverse population coming into the university. It definitely helps us,” Lettman said.
TECHS welcomed a new UT liaison officer this school year.
John Adams started his time with TECHS by helping to put TECHS’ homecoming court center stage at UT’s homecoming game.
Adams, who referred questions to Lettman, fully supports the mission and vision of TECHS, according to a 2013 TECHS newsletter. Part of his responsibilities as liaison is to be directly involved in the marketing to and recruitment of eighth-grade students, which have been beefed up to meet the new goal of growing the school.
“There is a need now more than ever to raise awareness and encourage discussions at home between students and their families, relating to college preparedness,” said Adams in the newsletter.
No student has ever graduated from TECHS with fewer than 30 hours of college credit, according to EDWorks, a subsidiary of Cincinnati-based KnowledgeWorks that establishes and tracks early college high schools.
On average, 85 percent of TECHS students earn 51-60 hours of college credit before they graduate high school and 12 percent earn between 41-50 hours of college credit during high school. Some earn more than 60 credits.
EDWorks does not have data on how many go on to universities, but it does know that 67 percent of TECHS graduates are enrolled at UT, working on their four-year degrees. Two TECHS alumni are currently pursuing graduate degrees at UT.
According to Wheatley, 98 percent of the school’s graduates enroll at UT.
Sisters Amber and Autumn Mitchell are both graduates of TECHS. They said their family is middle class — too rich to afford federal and state aid but too poor to fund a college education. They wanted to help finance their educations but they also wanted a head start, they said.
Amber, who was a member of the first graduating class at TECHS, is earning her graduate degree in school psychology at UT. The 23-year-old said the experience at TECHS was a great way to learn networking and study skills.
“I took my first college class at 15 and it was geology,” said Amber, who earned 71 credits at TECHS. “No one else knew my age. When they did find out they were like, ‘Oh, you are so smart.’ I’m like ‘No, I have to put in an effort just like you.’”
Autumn, 18, played the viola and volleyball at Rogers High School and worked a customer service job all while earning 60 credits at TECHS. She is currently a junior at UT and will graduate at age 19 with a degree in political science. She plans to be an attorney. She said TECHS gave her a valuable lesson in time management and provided a smooth transition from high school to college.
“The transition was easier because it was just like going to [high] school,” Autumn said. “At TECHS, we had to report back to teachers. Now, I keep track of that myself.”
“The school further enhanced what they came in with,” said the sisters’ mother, Veronica Mitchell. “The kids come in with the skills but the schools enhance that. I have a personal relationship with half the teachers and still volunteer. What I love about it is the great feedback. If any child is falling through the cracks, the teacher notifies the parent.”
An impact study by the American Institutes for Research last month found that early college high school students had a greater opportunity than their peers to enroll in and graduate from college. They also earned college degrees at a higher rate than comparable students.
Early college high schools were established in Ohio in 2003 as part of a partnership between KnowledgeWorks Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) and others in response to the state’s poor graduation rates.
TECHS started two years later, joining six other such schools in urban areas across the state. KnowledgeWorks funneled a $400,000 grant from Bill and Melinda Gates to start the school.
As part of the school’s mission, the student body would primarily consist of students who would be first-generation college students, from low-income homes, English language learners or students of color, although they are not requirements for attending.
The mission was designed to keep students, particularly those from low-income families, from dropping out of high school and give them better opportunities to succeed in college, thereby breaking the cycle of poverty, administrators said.
Factors of success
Wheatley called the school a “huge success,” which she attributes to its strong relationship with UT, which treats TECHS students as its own. By students’ junior year, they are taking the bus to UT’s main campus and mingling among regular college students.
Administrators pointed to TECHS’ performance rating by the state as more proof of its achievement. TECHS has the highest performance rating in Northwest Ohio, surpassing Ottawa Hills High School, a school with more affluent students and families, Wheatley said.
Overall, the school earned an A on its 2012-13 report card, earning a 94 percent and 100 percent achievement rating.
Today, TECHS is the highest-performing school in the district and was recently named by the ODE as the state’s seventh-ranking high school and 17th highest-performing school overall in the state, according to EDWorks.
Steven Flagg, an education advocate who has followed TPS and education issues for the past 17 years, does not disagree that the school is a success on an academic level, but he is not so sure the school has met its original criteria for success, educating the underprivileged but has instead has morphed into merely a “public relations” school.
“If their mission is to break the cycle of poverty, I’m not sure they’re meeting it,” Flagg said. “If the mission is to have a beacon in the district as a PR model then they’re meeting it. … These students are succeeding, but are they meeting the mission of breaking the cycle of poverty? … I don’t want to destroy this school. I want the school to meet its mission.”
Among Flagg’s concerns are that not enough minority, low-income and first-generation college students are being recruited and that the cost of educating students who drop out before graduation may not be cost-effective to taxpayers or the system.
Flagg said he believes a change in leadership changed the direction of the school, resulting in a change to the mission.
A study released Jan. 22 by Policy Matters Ohio, an Ohio-based nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research organization established in 2000, found that the majority of the highest-performing schools in Ohio — including TECHS — have enrolled a smaller proportion of minorities, economically disadvantaged and disabled students compared to the districts in which they serve.
TECHS was part of the study that looked at seven school districts and 11 schools in Toledo. TPS was one of 57 districts examined statewide.
“We found that a majority of these top-rated schools enrolled lower percentages of minority students, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities,” the report said. “It is clear that most are not reaching an equal share of the students with the fewest opportunities in Ohio urban districts.”
The study shows that 30.2 percent of the students at TECHS are black compared to 42.1 percent in TPS; the number of Hispanic students at TECHS is 6.9 percent compared to 9.4 percent in the district, and TECHS has a 46.1 percent white enrollment compared to 40.7 percent of white students in the district.
“It does not surprise me in the least,” Flagg said of the study results. “I have been asking these same questions for a year and saying there’s something wrong here. The one thing that has to happen here is that every single program needs performance bench marks.
“I frankly don’t think we need to be giving folks with advantages more advantage,” he said.
The study went on to say that the highest-performing schools have practices that others don’t, such as selective enrollment, applications and smaller class size, which are reasons why they are successful.
Analyze the data
On Jan. 20, Gault and Flagg sat down to discuss Flagg’s concerns regarding the school’s mission, retention/graduation rates and recruitment issues.
Flagg and Gault, who meet regularly but have never entered into such a joint effort in the past, agreed to gather the data, analyze it, look to see if there are areas needing improvement and make any changes, they said. They’ll then take their findings before the governing board of TECHS, which is made up of representatives from the school, TPS and UT.
“[Flagg] had some concerns and I said ‘Let’s sit down’ and he’s going to pull some data and we’re going to discuss it and if there are some things supported by the data then we’ll bring (in) others,” Gault said.
“We’re going to review the history of what’s happened and get up to speed on why we’re at where we’re at,” Flagg said. “We’re going to look at the history and ask ourselves how we got to that point and ask how do we move forward based on where we’re at?”
Flagg and Gault have plans to meet again Feb. 11.
Student enrollment is open to students inside and outside the district, but the underprivileged get priority, Gault said. Minorities, low-income students, those who would be first in their families to attend college and ESL learners all take the first open slots and then other more privileged students fill the remaining slots.
The problem is that the school does not have enough interested underprivileged students to meet enrollment needs so the district must cast a wider net, he said.
“We’ve tried to stay in line with the mission of the school but it comes to a point where you want to expand it and you make room for others,” Gault said. “Students who are part of the mission are entered in first. They get priority. We have a lack of numbers of students. We’re doing a lot of marketing around schools to get more [minority] students to apply.”
Administrators have a new goal to grow the school, almost doubling it in three years, from its current 225 students to 400 students by 2017, Wheatley said. TECHS would continue to target the underprivileged while opening its doors to more students.
TECHS was on the chopping block six years ago and had to cut $100 million from its budget to stay alive. Fortunately, the school has been able to stay afloat and balance its budget, Gault said.
He said he believes the state shouldn’t make cuts to schools that are working.
“We should be trying to replicate the things that are working,” he said. “If we can grow our enrollment we can bring our costs down.”
On Jan. 25, the school hosted a recruitment seminar for eighth-graders across Northwest Ohio for next school year.
To increase enrollment, the school created a marketing campaign with mailings, commercials and yard signs for neighborhoods. School representatives are talking to parents and all eighth-grade classes across the district.
They are focused on TPS, in which 70 percent of students receive free or reduced-cost lunches.
“We believe our target audience is current TPS and charter school students,” Gault said. Meanwhile, the district is “working hard” to address the D performance rating it received in a 2012-13 report card from the state.
“We’re working hard to address that low grade for the district,” he said.
Wave of the future
The push toward early college high schools is a national trend. In 2003, the year early colleges started in Ohio, there were about 30 to 40 early college high schools around the country, said Harold Brown, president of EDWorks.
Today, there are about 300 early college high schools from New York to Texas, he said. North Carolina alone has 75; Texas has 50. Ohio has 16, including TECHS.
Gault, whose daughter attends TECHS, said part of the district’s plan is to take a look at what is working at TECHS and apply it to other schools in the district.
“[TECHS] is not for everybody,” Gault said. “It is for students who want to be pushed and have family members who want to support them. This is for your students who want a head start.”
Tags: Amber Mitchell, Autumn Mitchell, Dennis Lettman, EDWorks, Harold Brown, Jim Gault, John Adams, KnowledgeWorks Foundation, Matt Cleland, Patricia Jones, Randy Nissen, Raven Neal-Jackson, Robin Wheatley, Scott Park, Steven Flagg, Tierell McBeth, Toledo Early College High School, Toledo Public Schools, University of Toledo