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HACC Offers Students a College Experience—In High School

By Margie Mattis

Pilot program aims to boost student performance by bringing the college experience to the local high school.

Community college leaders know that the success of an innovative partnership depends on several factors: common goals, benefits to all parties, open communication, passionate champions on both sides — and, yes, even a little faith in one another.

At least that’s been the lesson from the pilot year of Harrisburg Area Community College’s (HACC) Early College Initiative. The partnership with a local urban high school was created to help college hopefuls get out in front of their academic needs — and early returns indicate the approach is working.

The need: In 2011, Deborah L. Wortham, then superintendent of the York City School District, made an executive decision. She agreed to replace William Penn High School’s entire senior-year English curriculum with HACC’s developmental English curriculum. Wortham also added HACC’s developmental math courses to the district’s senior-year course of study.

If scrapping an entire high school curriculum for a new approach sounds bold, it is. But in a district where 92 percent of high school seniors were testing into developmental reading and 100 percent were testing into developmental math, something had to be done.

The program: Through its partnership with HACC, the urban high school evaluated students at the end of their junior year and placed them into appropriate developmental math and reading courses to begin their senior campaigns. Over the summer, qualified high school teachers paired with HACC instructors to walk through the curriculum, including course objectives, textbooks, syllabi and assessments.

In an effort to create a college atmosphere on the high school campus, administrators renamed a revitalized wing of the high school the “HACC Hallway.” This new academic space is painted in HACC’s official colors and draped with banners bearing the HACC logo, and all of the classrooms in the new wing are outfitted with versatile furniture conducive to active, collaborative learning experiences.

The new hallway also includes offices, where HACC staff can work individually with students on the high school campus. High school seniors participating in the Early College Initiative receive career, academic and financial aid counseling and can access support services, including tutoring, without leaving the high school campus.

During the pilot program, HACC professors occasionally sat in on high school classes and even team-taught a few of the lessons. HACC librarians hosted workshops on how to use electronic resources for student research assignments. College admissions staff visited classrooms and presented information about HACC’s transfer and career programs. Financial aid experts talked to students and parents about resources to make college more affordable. HACC’s president and its provost visited with students, too, both to observe the program and to encourage students to continue working hard.

The results: After final testing in May 2013, Early College students showed significant improvements compared with where they were at the end of their junior year. In English, 37 percent of participating students placed one level higher than they did on the first placement exam. In math, 39 percent of students scored higher the second time.

Administrators knew going into this venture that not every student would be ready for college-level courses. The goal was, and continues to be, to help students be more ready than when they started senior year. That’s how we have measured our success.

Thinking about starting an early college program on your campus? Here are a few lessons learned from HACC’s experience: 

  • Student rewards and recognition are key to keeping students motivated throughout the academic year.
  • It’s crucial to control the placement-test environment. Linking test results to final course grades often provides students with the needed motivation to take placement exams seriously.
  • It’s important to provide parents with an opportunity to be involved in the program.
  • Open communication and interaction between high school teachers and college faculty ensures support for the academic integrity of the curriculum.
Margie Mattis

is campus dean of academic affairs of Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania.

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