COLORADO SPRINGS GAZETTE: High school students rack up college credits, earn degrees

Lacy Sramek pretty much missed the social scene during her last two years of high school because she rarely was on campus.

She wasn’t skipping. She was in classrooms at Pikes Peak Community College.

At her recent high school commencement ceremony, she was handed an associate of arts degree from PPCC along with her high school diploma.

Lacy Sramek pretty much missed the social scene during her last two years of high school because she rarely was on campus.

She wasn’t skipping. She was in classrooms at Pikes Peak Community College.

At her recent high school commencement ceremony, she was handed an associate of arts degree from PPCC along with her high school diploma. And she didn’t have to pay a cent for tuition, books or fees.

“My parents are very excited,” said Sramek, who will start as a junior at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in the fall. “They only have to pay for two years.”

Sramek, 18, was among nine graduates of Colorado Springs Early Colleges who earned associates degrees as they graduated from high school — believed to be the first students in the region to do so.

“This is the first time in our 52 years that we’ve presented a degree at a high school graduation,” PPCC President Tony Kinkle said at the commencement ceremony, where he awarded associates degrees to Sramek and Julie Baron.

Seven other students earned associates degrees from Colorado Technical University, which shares its Chestnut Street campus with Early Colleges.

Dozens more students earned up to 60 college credits, most of which were paid for by the school. The members of the class of 2010, about 100 students, walked away with about 4,800 college credits worth about $720,000 in tuition, books and fees, said Keith King, the school’s administrator and founder.

The students are among a growing number earning college credits while in high school through a plethora of programs. So many programs, in fact, that it’s tough to get a handle on how many college credits are appearing on high school transcripts, and how many of those are being accepted by colleges.

The Colorado Department of Education is working to streamline dual credit programs in accordance with legislation adopted in 2009 aimed at ensuring their quality and accountability while making them accessible to more students.

“We want to help students know what’s available and make it less intimidating for parents,” said Charles Dukes, senior CDE consultant working with the Concurrent Enrollment Advisory Board.

Dukes said districts can continue to use existing programs, but they will be required to follow the state’s new rules, which include having an agreement with a qualified institution of higher education and allowing students in ninth through 12th grade to enroll in college courses if they meet the requirements.

In addition, he said, the state will launch its ASCENT (Accelerating Students Through Concurrent Enrollment) program this fall in six districts, including Widefield School District 3.

The program essentially allows students to remain in high school for a fifth year and get a year of college paid for by the state. The students must meet certain requirements, including earning at least 12 college credits by the end of their fourth year.

Widefield has slots for five students to enroll in the program as they begin their senior year this fall, said Scott Campbell, executive director for educational services. “This is a concept that’s new to us, but we have plenty of kids who will meet the criteria,” he said. “Whether they’ll want to do it, we don’t know.”

D-3’s other dual credit programs are through extended studies courses taught at the high schools by teachers who qualify as adjunct college instructors.

Extended studies enrollment hasn’t grown as dramatically as Campbell expected, but he attributes that to the poor economy and the fact that students must pay for the college credits. While the $40 per credit hour is much cheaper than the going college tuition rate, it’s an added cost.

Extended studies programs, which won’t be affected by the new concurrent enrollment rules, are popular at districts throughout the region.

During the past school year, CU-Succeed programs through the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs enrolled 249 student who earned a total of 952 college credits, said Brian Glach, director of extended studies in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Similar programs are offered by other state colleges and universities as well.

Programs such as advanced placement and international baccalaureate courses charge hefty test fees that students or parents must pay, putting them out of range for some students.

That’s why charter schools such as Colorado Springs Early Colleges and Pikes Peak Prep cover tuition, books and fees out of the per pupil revenue they receive from the state.

Early Colleges has agreements with PPCC and the UCCS to enroll its students, as well as its unique agreement with the private CTU. CTU courses are taught on the shared campus, so students can enroll in high school and college courses on a single campus.

Students can use up to $4,300 per year toward tuition, books and fees. King said students who take several UCCS courses might have to pay a portion of their costs because the tuition is higher there.

While the school’s high school classrooms are nearing capacity, King said CSEC is not limited on juniors and seniors who qualify to take all their courses at colleges. Students are required to take the Accuplacer test to ensure college readiness.

Of course, there’s more than academic readiness.

Sramek said the biggest challenge for her was recognizing that self-motivation and keeping up with the work is essential to succeed in college courses.

“If you want more of the high school experience, you’re not going to get that at PPCC,” she said. “But you get a great opportunity to further your education and push yourself to do the best you can.

“I definitely felt more like a college student. I really didn’t feel like I was in high school so much. I enjoyed it.”

The success demonstrated this year at CSEC is just the beginning, King said. “This concept will continue to grow over the next five to 10 years,” he said. “We’re just scratching the surface with the early college concept.”

For him, it’s all about getting more kids into college, especially those who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

That’s true at Pikes Peak Prep, too, where transportation to the PPCC downtown studio is also thrown into the package.

Prep will hold its first-ever graduation later this month for six students, one of whom will walk away with about 40 college credits.

Jonathan Hartleben, 18, said the transition to taking college courses was easier than he expected.

“As long as you do your work you can do quite well,” he said.

Hartleben said he plans to complete his two-year degree at PPCC and hopes to study architectural drafting at CU-Boulder or Denver.

It’s a chance he might not have had without Pikes Peak Prep, said his mom, Rachel Hartleben, who also drives the tiny bus that takes the students to their college courses.

“At the income bracket we’re in, we can’t put money aside for college,” she said. “It’s been the perfect place for us.”

Jonathan’s younger sister will start her college courses as a sophomore and likely will earn an associates degree when she leaves high school.

“She wants to show up her big brother,” Jonathan said with a laugh. “That’s fine with me.

“The opportunity is amazing. For me, a year’s worth of free college and books.”

College in High School Programs

There are myriad ways high school students can earn college credits, but students should check that the credits will be transferrable to the college of their choice. Check with high school counselors about what’s offered in your school. Here are some examples of programs offered in the Pikes Peak region:

Extended studies programs:

These are coordinated through a particular college or university, which evaluates the teacher, syllabus and materials to ensure quality. The courses, equivalent to a 100- or 200-level college course, are taught in the high school and student can pay a small fee, usually $40 per credit hour, to earn credit from the associated university.

Coronado High School, for example, has had its CU-Gold program for years and during the past school year 55 percent of its seniors were enrolled in at least one college course, with a total of 1,211 credit hours awarded.

Advanced Placement courses

Credits for students who pass the College Board AP tests are widely accepted for scores of four or five, and often for scores of three. The test fee is $86.Generally, students take AP courses in their junior or senior year and take the test in the spring. However, students don’t have to enroll in a course to take the tests, which cover multiple subject areas. Most area high schools offer AP courses. In Colorado Springs School District 11, the area’s largest district, about 24 percent of juniors and seniors were enrolled in AP courses, and about 63 percent received passing grades of three or higher.

International Baccalaureate

This two-year diploma program is offered at selected high schools, which are accredited by the international organization. Students who pass high-level tests in various subjects receive the IB diploma, and many enroll in college as sophomores. The students pay test fees.

Post-secondary enrollment options

This is the program used at Colorado Springs Early Colleges and Pikes Peak Prep that allows juniors and seniors to enroll in colleges courses under agreements between their high school and a institution of higher education.

Under the new concurrent enrollment legislation, these programs will be available to students in ninth through 12th grade, and districts programs must be in lined with state requirements by July 1, 2012.

Career and technical programs

Area school districts have a host of programs to allow students to take some vocational classes, although the number of slots often is limited. Check with your school or district for more information

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