Wednesday, February 01, 2006 | New jargon from the education establishment and its critics is being heard constantly these days, resulting in the need to redefine what American public schools are all about, and how we should meet the ever-growing instability of the future of our children.

Educational critics find the shifting terminology an easy target for complaint. The charter movement and other reforms are reactions to the national tension over public school success. Every day new ideas emerge, but more importantly we now have two new concepts being examined in our community, “middle college,” and “early college.”

Their names may be similar, but these programs are not identical. So long as leaders are aware of the differences in both concepts and are willing to build school programs and facilities to accommodate them, the two however, may be merged.

Understanding either concept is not difficult if you explore what has been happening to the nation’s comprehensive high schools over the past few years.

Education used to be simple, your child learned the basics in elementary school, explored hands-on opportunities and academics in middle school, and used high school to prepare for college, or as preparation for a shift into the work force. High achievers were accepted into the best colleges they could afford, while others got into less well known, but academically respectable schools. Some went to community colleges for post-high academic and vocational preparation, or to transfer to four-year colleges.

In the past 20 years, however, the focus of public education has switched into a more popular and important necessity. Its goal is to prepare every child for colleges and universities. This concept appeals to the public; politically it’s powerful. It might even be argued that the current criticism of public schools is founded in an assumption that failing a rigorous college preparation is better than being trained for alternate paths to success.

In nearly every recent political initiative from local school districts to the state and federal level, school reformers say that all children can learn, and follow that belief with a program designed to prepare every child for entrance and success in higher education.

In California’s environment of scarce resources, this meant gradual erosion of career-based skill training in high school. This is true especially when one looks at the higher cost of hands-on career preparation in modern, well-equipped facilities. So, since the public has been told what to expect from the schools, funding to do that must follow.

In California, local tax dollars for vocational education effectively vanished after Proposition 13, and Regional Occupational Programs (based on a special county permissive tax) became the main source of training for high school age students and some adults. But even with ROP support, many high schools moved away from their vocational/technical programs because of the new focus on college admission and the cost of technological changes in those programs.

The main delivery system for occupational skill training shifted to the community colleges that had handled the post high school training needs for years. There, students were given a second chance to prepare for university admission and at the same time being able to access job-specific technical training. Students not transferring to universities switched to technical training and were able to find well-paying jobs as a result of that swap. In fact, there is evidence that many university graduates have returned for the specialized training that is widely available in community colleges.

So with the new emphasis on preparing every child for the university, some of our high school students can be found in educational limbo. Without prejudging their differences in high school performance as being a result of drive, ability, or interest- they clearly are not being served. These kids are found in the 10th grade or earlier and are getting “C” or lower grades in their high school’s college preparation classes.

These students are interested in technical careers and plan to enter the work force before they engage in a second try at higher education. When asked, they tell you what they are expected to say about college, but inside they want a way out. They want an alternative path to success.

That’s what a “middle college” is designed to do. It is a special school organized to allow students to start career preparation and continue their dreams of college in the 10th grade by going to a school jointly operated by a community college and a high school district.

In San Diego City Schools, we are designing these new schools together with the San Diego Community College District. One of these schools, Garfield High, is located at San Diego City College, and students there are given the option of getting a high school diploma while taking community college technical and undergraduate college courses at the same time.

A similar program is being designed at Mesa College as well. The significant differences between the schools, and the reason a student might select one or the other, are the technical programs available at each nearby community college campus as well as other instructional components.

The transition to a university is supported by a program that the community colleges have developed which guarantees admission to local state university campuses when students have satisfactorily completed undergraduate requirements.

Students who are not highly engaged in college preparation in high school, or who aren’t currently getting top grades, may find the middle college a place where they can transition to work, with a high school diploma and a leg up on well-paying technical employment, while still keeping an eye on a four-year degree.

The middle college program offers traditional high school courses in a setting that encourages achievement and admission to community college courses by students who show successful behavior and achievement. While the objective is a community college transition, it is possible that a student would stay in the middle college program until graduation or make a transition at age 18-19 to an adult education or a career preparation program for adults.

Being involved at a school where some students are making the transition, and seeing the opportunities that are available, should provide the incentives needed to motivate more students to higher levels of achievement.

The middle college serves as a place of transition where a student can succeed, get a diploma, and start both a college and a technical career. The programs are rigorous, but not purely academic. Many students who seek hands-on learning opportunities with interesting job potentials will find success in these promising new schools.

What technical fields are available, and which middle college should a student select? The answer requires student guidance and career counseling activities which should be a part of every student’s middle and high school experience. Leaving their neighborhood high school for a special program may be a bad choice for certain students unless they have found that regular high schools are not working for them. Through counseling, these unsuccessful students may find that the middle college option is what they need. This could happen as late as their senior year.

“Early college” is a plan for early admission to college so students can finish two years of undergraduate courses in a community college and earn an AA degree by their 13th year of school. That is an accelerated experience, designed to serve a more highly motivated student than those previously described. These students are usually admitted to early college in the ninth grade and plan to attend the school for five years to complete the community college program early.

In a specially designed high school program at Mesa College, called “The Met,” the students meet high school course requirements through projects and activities that are individualized and not necessarily classroom based. This unique delivery system is part of a design provided by “The Big Picture Schools” based in Providence, R.I. Details of this program are available at

There is no reason that a regular student cannot participate in the early college, or the Met, but it may take them the same amount of time as it would have if they attended a regular high school and then entered a standard community college two-year program.

On the other hand, it may be the motivating factor that leads them to even higher achievement as the founders of the program maintain.

The choice of an early college program is one that needs to be considered individually by a student and his or her parents. It may involve giving up some of the regular activities associated with high school, and a willingness to associate with more mature peers as well as working independently with less classroom instruction. A return to regular schools is never impossible, but it is far better for everyone if they make an informed choice.

The possibility of having a program that combines middle college and early college seems appropriate, since admission to community college programs in either school is limited to students who meet the college’s standards. This usually includes a required introduction course and some skills testing. After completion of the admission requirements for college course enrollments, the student takes required high school classes in a middle college, or does the projects in an early college and selects from community college courses that are available to them. The community college courses may mingle community college freshmen with the middle/early college students, or offer classes taught just for these students by college instructors.

Mixing these two concepts requires a leadership that understands both schools. It requires a facility that has direct access to a community college so that students have immediate access to the programs in each school as needed.

In San Diego, we have arranged to build two facilities to house these programs, one at San Diego City College and another at Mesa College. One is constructed and land has been dedicated for the Mesa program. Architectural design is underway as well. While all the curriculum and design elements are not fully developed, the districts are committed to providing the facilities and programs that will make this educational option available and successful for students in our community.

Continued collaboration between the San Diego Board of Education and the San Diego Community College Board under the leadership of Chancellor Constance Carroll and Superintendent Carl Cohn will assure the success of this important joint venture. It is possible that similar collaboration can be developed between the districts at Miramar College and ECC so that students in each region of our community will have convenient access to Middle/Early Colleges that provide a needed transition between our successful institutions. There are alternative paths to success for our children.

John de Beck is a member of the Board of Education for San Diego City Schools.

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