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Leadership Challenges of Early College and Dual Enrollment Programs

Staring at the nine Zoom cubes on my screen, I can tell that the discussion is not going as I expected. I had been asked to talk to the leadership of a higher education institution about early college and dual enrollment, and help them to navigate a decision that they needed to make about a curricular focus area for a new dual enrollment program. The person who invited me to the conversation is an accomplished, smart, visionary leader, but the discussion we are having today seems flat. About 20 minutes into our time together the questions turn to "will this generate revenue?" for the higher education partner. I responded that my own program certainly did not generate a profit (it was never intended to, and the program has other priorities, such as diversity). The issue of "what's in it for us" is almost always a sign that people do not buy into the concept. When it is raised, it can be a sign that people do not know enough about the model, have had a poor experience with similar programs, or are not yet in a position to move forward with the project.

A colleague of mine who has worked to support many early colleges/ dual enrollment programs at the startup phase told me that to launch a successful program, the leadership at the top needs to completely buy into the program and the model - the college president and the superintendent. Then, there need to be champions at the next level down, people to shepherd the day-to-day transactions that move the program forward. Over time, more champions on campus will emerge, and also take a role in building and growing the program. But without the buy-in at the top, and the champions in the next level, any single negative decision can stop an early college or dual enrollment program in its tracks - even something as simple as where to park the school busses on campus.

The leadership component of early college and dual enrollment programs cannot be underestimated. The ability of leaders to motivate their staff to work on the programs, to recruit the right people to fill teaching and other key roles, to problem solve even when a pandemic is moving towards campus are the differences between a thriving program and a limping program, and the difference between strong outcomes for students and mediocre ones. Ironically, unlike many educational reforms that do not generate particularly good results, dual enrollment and early college programs that lose their leadership support to a retirement can be brought to a quick halt, while zombie programs with few positive outcomes can wander the landscape indefinitely.

0 Lead to Launch: ■w

The Early College experience in Texas demonstrates:

  • • Philanthropy and technical assistance can help launch and sustain great programs.
  • • Efforts should be focused on students and communities who need the most help.
  • • Leaders need to understand their community, its labor market, and which careers are in demand.
  • • Programs need to be held to standards and a model to be recognized as an official early college program.

Building Early College Capacity in Texas

When you are looking for the leaders in the early college movement, people in education are often surprised that the heartland of the movement is the state of Texas. Educators often look to the two coasts for educational innovation, but the growth of early college in Texas has been nothing but, well, Texas-sized. But in Texas, leadership at the state level, and on many campuses and school districts, brought this vision to life.

In Texas, philanthropic groups and technical assistance providers helped build the field from the beginning, and shaped the way it grew and spread. From the beginning in 2005, Educate Texas and the Community Foundation of Texas helped grow early college from just a handful of schools. As Dr. Reo Pruitt of Educate Texas put it, balancing local needs and "non-negotia-bles" of the model was key to managing this growth.

When choosing new sites in Texas, a few key ingredients were needed. The first was having leadership who were willing to do the work that early college entailed. Next, it needed leaders who understood the job market in the region, and could design programs that would help students find their way into programs that led to a career, and not just amass college credit for its own sake. This connection to career throughout the process defines the Texas approach to early college, and is uniquely powerful to connect to first-generation students and families, particularly from immigrant backgrounds, and their families.

Building programs in Texas took many ingredients, according to Dr. Pruitt. Leadership for this effort needed to have the following characteristics:

  • • Leaders needed to be willing to be advocates for the program, and to get 100% behind early college.
  • • Leaders needed to build a culture among the teachers of high expectations, who had the same energy as the leadership to get the program moving.
  • • Leaders needed to be willing to be flexible in decision making - early college is not a game show, and something does not need to be a final answer. If a decision does not work, leaders need to go back and redesign or co-design.
  • • Leaders need to stop designing just for the next year, and to think about a whole cohort and build the support systems that students need.

Working with and in the community is critical to early college success, particularly in recruiting. Leaders have to be able to go out into the community and tell the early college high school (ECHS) story - they need to be able to tell families what ECHS will mean for the entire family, not just the enrolled student. Leaders need to be able to tell the story of how ECHS has changed the community for the better, and how it has changed educational practice.

From the beginning, the focus of early college in Texas was on the students who needed it most - first-generation, low-income students, locating many schools on the United States/Mexico border and the I-35 corridor (Laredo, Waco, San Antonio, Waco, Austin, Dallas/Ft. Worth). Pruitt emphasized that these were school districts that needed a new model and a new narrative of the education that they were offering. Early college could provide both of these for them, raising the profiles of schools while it was raising the educational achievement of students.

Building a Structure to Support your Efforts

Early colleges are, by their nature, hybrid institutions, neither entirely K-12 nor higher education in nature. When they are too much like high schools, students do not respond any differently than they do in a traditional eightperiod day - which means they often pull their hoodies over their heads and wait for the last bell of the day. When early colleges just put high school students directly into a college setting without support, academic and other problems will proliferate. The leadership challenges of developing and running an early college are daunting, and the people who do this work are unique. The act of bringing together all the elements of a successful early college is a work of magic, involving economic savvy, people smarts, ability to inspire, and a gift for connecting to students and their families.

The structures that leaders build to support early colleges vary greatly by location, and can change over time. The Early College Alliance @ EMU began as a consortium of school districts purchasing space and discounted tuition at Eastern Michigan University. For years, it was a tenant and negotiated a discount for its students at the institution, then sold seats to local school districts. Over time, it evolved to have at least one EMU employee on staff, in charge of operations for the program. When the structure became too unwieldy, the ECA program evolved into part of an independent school district on three alternative programs - a degree completion program, an international baccalaureate high school. This entity had its own board, one superintendent to manage all the programs, and contracted with districts for seats in all three programs.

In Lawrence, Massachusetts, the opposite structure evolved. With a large high school and many needs, the district has built one program with a community college, and another with a four-year institution, basically forming a consortium of partners to serve its high school students. This overall structure is informal, with the two institutions beginning to build programming to meet the needs of all students in the building.

Staffing Early College and Dual

Enrollment Programs

The people who work well in early college programs are not always the same as people who work well in traditional high schools. Or, as teachers transition from the traditional high school setting to the early college setting, they need to change in order to thrive, often giving up one set of roles and embracing another. As Stephen Tremaine from Bard College put it, they need to be comfortable in a role that is not either "fancy high school teacher or less fancy college teacher - something distinctive and different." Tremaine continues, "We hire faculty who have a terminal degree, have published, and who you are considering for jobs at our campus." These teachers then take on a unique role in the school, they:

Teach students from 9th grade on - students do not meet a new group of teachers for early college. A teacher might have students for a 9th grade literature class, and then see the same teacher again for Russian literature. This makes the early college uniquely prepared to support students seamlessly. We do everything we can to replicate what defines a great college education, with small classes, taught seminar style, with support from a writing center, tutoring, and peer tutoring - everything has the feel, resources and infrastructure of a place like Bard.

People who found early colleges tend to be educators who have been looking for a new way to do things for some time. They rarely emerge from the ranks of assistant principals or headmasters, or other roles that support the current high school structure. One founder of an early college program was a computer scientist, working at the intersection of computers and education - early college was literally a way to reset the operating system of education. Another leader in the field came from the field of strategy, having worked on projects to increase the number of low-income people able to attain a college education at a reasonable cost.

Several of the first faculty at the early college were poached from positions as tutors with a local GEAR UP program. These individuals had graduated with teaching licenses, but were unable to find jobs immediately, and were working in a program to support middle school students to become ready for college. They were ideal candidates for a startup program, and had already worked in programs that aimed to build high expectations for students.

Other early college faculty were brought in from partner school districts, with the original idea that teachers might rotate through the program and bring what they learned back to their home school district. This did not work out as planned, as many teachers did not want to return to their home building, and teachers in traditional high school were not as interested in the experience of an early college program as expected. Instead, teachers who came to the early college tended to stay, adapting new roles in their new structure. One teacher who had been an English teacher and drama teacher at a traditional high school dropped the drama when she came to the early college, becoming far more focused on literature and writing.

The selection of teachers for these programs is critical, more important than any other factor. It is not an overstatement to say that early college programs could build their curriculum out of remarkable teachers and what they teach, rather than trying to plug non-ideal teachers into the system. For example, at Merrimack College we were lucky to find Dr. Michael Piatelli to teach biology in our program, and his belief in the students and his spirit have been critical to the success of the program, and who had previously had experience working with an early college effort at Boston College.

Staff who cannot be genuinely encouraging, and who cannot provide both the high standards and support needed by students, will not work well in an Early College setting. When faculty or staff are unable to get behind the project of the early college, and do not genuinely believe that students can accomplish the work, they cannot be involved - their words and non-verbal signals let students know where they stand every day. High school students have their antennae up for whether people believe in them, and will not be fooled for long. Faculty who do not believe in high expectations for all students, and that all students can meet them, ultimately undermine the program.

Scheduling: A Critical Crossroads

Early college scheduling is simply a grinding nightmare. The college schedule and the high school schedule are designed at cross purposes, and need to be meshed for a schedule to work. The two sets of calendars are different as well, so negotiating across institutions is important to harmonize the two sets of times and dates. Meredith Fitzsimmons, who manages operations for an early college, said, "Early College initiatives bridge institutions with a common goal but oftentimes very different structures, calendars and operating procedures. Opening up strong lines of communication and checking in often is imperative for the success of the program." High school schedules are designed around busses and athletics, with an early start and an early finish. College schedules are often clustered in the middle of the day, or in the afternoon, leading to a mismatch of students and available classes.

Stacey Ciprich, the founding Principal of Abbott Lawrence Academy within Lawrence High School, created a small highly diverse exam school within a huge comprehensive high school. She said that scheduling is the key to early college success, and that the work of leadership is to make sure that the high school schedule and calendar can work with the college calendar and schedule. While this may sound overly simplistic, this is actually a constant struggle, and programs that are unable to find the right times and days for college-level classes find themselves severely limited or undermined by this situation.

For our program in Lawrence, MA, we used the relatively open classroom time of 8-9:50 am to build an entire program, with students coming to campus by 8 am and leaving by 10 am. Other early college programs simply target open seats, rather than open classrooms, finding spots that are less in demand. The opportunity to rethink the schedule means that early colleges can have later start times, giving high school students more time to sleep, starting at 9 am rather than at dawn.

Either way, students expect to have some time in the afternoon for activities, particularly sports. Some early college students have turned to community teams or individual sports rather than participating in the high school sports system. Some early colleges simply have students compete with their home high school. Other early colleges use the after-school hours as prime time to offer classes that cannot be offered during the school day. Whichever direction an early college takes, scheduling and logistics will consume much of the time of school and higher education administrators.

Dual Enrollment as an Opportunity

for Community Colleges

Matt Reed is America's most famous community college official, serving as Chief Academic Officer of Brookdale Community College in New Jersey, and also a prominent columnist for He has written consistently about community colleges and dual enrollment/early college, extensively as a means of community colleges moving forward during a time of uncertain enrollments.

Reed's experience building early college and dual enrollment programs did not begin in a promising way. He inherited a dual enrollment program that started in the 9th grade, and was focused on getting high schoolers interested in the social sciences. This model just did not work - the 9th grade students were too immature for the college course model to work effectively, faculty did not like working with 9th and 10th graders, and students were dissatisfied that so few of the credits transferred if they left the social sciences.

The key to improving the program was to change the focus. Reed had to change the program, moving to a focus on 11th and 12 graders, and the program aimed for general education credits rather than a major. This would enable students to enter the program in 11th grade with a fighting chance to succeed, gave faculty a group of students far more mature in their classrooms, and allowed students to choose a wider range of majors, without losing so many credits at the transferring institution.

Reed views dual enrollment and early college as a way for community colleges to fight the stigma that keeps so many students from even considering a community college for their college education. If students can take a class on a community college campus (even if it is a regional campus and not the main campus) and can have a good experience with faculty there, the two-year school becomes a more viable option in their college choice. He views that as important for students across the income range. As community colleges were created to serve the whole community, Reed believes that dual enrollment and early college can help community colleges to reach both low-income students, as well as middle- and high-income students who might have looked down on the opportunity, until they have the chance to take a course while still in high school. Then, as parents talk about their students' experiences, community college gets a positive buzz in the community, for quality as well as cost.

Northern Essex Community College president Lane Glenn also sees dual enrollment as a way to break down this stigma. He told me that even within his own family, taking a class at a community college during the high school years was not an easy sell, and that one child hesitated to take the opportunity. However, as Reed had predicted, once Glenn's family members gave the community college classes a chance, they came back for more.

According to Reed, the barriers to dual enrollment and early college are numerous. The two systems have different structures, calendars, and schedules, even down to issues such as who buys textbooks. College faculty can resist the idea of being involved in a high school program, and faculty members at a community college, already feeling the stigma of teaching 13th grade, are even less likely to want to teach 11th and 12th graders. Finally, school districts each have their own funding models, leaving Reed's institution with over 30 different systems for paying for early college/dual enrollment at his single institution.

Reed believes that newer models of dual enrollment might be able to solve the problems between the systems. He is working on a system by which the high school grade for a class, and college credit, are separated. So, in a class of 25 high school history students, only 10 might be taking the class for college credit, and they would submit work to the college to be assessed for their college credits. That would put less pressure on credentials of the high school teacher, would simplify scheduling, and would allow classes to be dual enrollment classes with many fewer students than is usually needed for a section to run.

For those starting an early college or dual enrollment program, Reed advises people to be prepared to iterate as they go. With all the differences between the high school and college systems, there will always be some issue - schedules, academic support, textbooks - and be prepared to retrofit the program based on the problems that you encounter, without placing blame on either system. When a faculty member at his college found no students in his class one day because it was the day of the prom, that is no one's fault, just a problem no one had foreseen.

Lessons from the History of Early College

Graduate student Meghann Walk started her work in the field of the history of early college programs through replying to an email in her inbox. She received an email about a mid-year position at Bard's early high school in Manhattan and applied for the job. Once hired at the early college, she fell in love with the school and model.

She was not part of the first wave of faculty who founded the school, who were part of what she calls a "Wild West" of having to think through so many issues to launch the program, and the experience of wearing many hats as the school staffed up. Instead, as part of a second wave of faculty, she was able to join a high school that was an exciting place to be an educator, and to live a liberal arts ethos in a high school setting. The Bard model, unlike many others, is committed to knowledge for its own sake and living that knowledge back into the world.

Walk began writing about the history of early college when she left the Bard program to go to graduate school in education. In a history of education class, she got to choose a movement to focus on and documented the rise of the early college, from its start as an idea during World War II to its present growth. She found early college to be an interesting topic because it became a major educational reform at a time when most reforms were rooted in monitoring and accountability, where early college programs are built on optimism and trust.

She believes that the lesson on history is that early college programs can take two forms - one is trying to put together existing high school programs with college coursework - the other is using this as an opportunity to rethink the way that the whole school operates, with everyone involved thinking about what education could be.

Challenges and Opportunities

for Leadership

Early colleges offer an opportunity for people to become leaders who might never be called upon to lead traditional high school or higher education programs. This leadership is often less committed to much of what makes traditional high schools tick (athletics, events) and much more focused on academics. These individuals often come from alternative programs where a focus on each student and family is the norm, and are also more analytic in their approach to academic planning and delivery. People interested in early colleges also tend to have more connections outside education - to the workplace, to industry, to community organizations - that inform their programming.

0The Early College/Dual Enrollment Edge: Do All Students Benefit from Dual Enrollment Programs?

According to quantitative research of outcomes of dual enrollment:

  • • All participants benefit from dual enrollment opportunities.
  • • Students who are from families where they are the first to go to college see more benefits than other students.
  • • Programs benefit students in terms of both high school and college completion.

What Does Research Say about the Effectiveness of Dual Enrollment

Educational researcher's Brian An's groundbreaking research on dual enrollment programs has provided the most rigorous examination of the issue of how to help low-income students best prepare for and graduate from college. Using national survey data, An teases out issues such as which students dual enrollment benefits, and how dual enrollment compares to other interventions, such as advanced placement classes, that schools often use to help raise college going rates among their students.

An was among the first researchers to systematically examine the hunch that many in the policy world had thought about dual enrollment and early college - that these interventions actually worked better with low-income and first-generation students than among their more affluent peers. This greater impact makes sense, as most middle-class and upper-class students are already aimed squarely at higher education by their family and their high school experience. As these affluent students were already on a trajectory to enter and graduate from institutions of higher learning that, frankly, were designed with their demographic in mind, dual enrollment did not provide a major boost to their enrollment and graduation rates.

As An wrote in his groundbreaking article,

First-generation college students who participated in dual enrollment were more likely to attain a college degree than similar nonparticipants. Moreover, I found some evidence that first-generation students were more likely to benefit from dual enrollment participation than those with a college-educated parent ... Overall, these findings suggest that students with college-educated parents are likely to attend college, and attain a degree, regardless of their participation in dual enrollment. Furthermore, while dual enrollment serves as a means to raise academic preparation for a wide range of students, these programs may especially benefit those lower in the socioeconomic distribution.

An's statistical approach meant that he was able to examine the statistics on dual enrollment and rather than simply compare a group of participants and non-participants, he was able to minimize the interference of key factors that could make this simple comparison misleading. An was able to compare apples to apples - low-income students who are able to take advantage of dual enrollment, to their peers who are unable to. Through this, he was able to document a small, but meaningful difference for students without parents who enrolled in or graduated college. His work is in many ways a bridge from the initial wave of enthusiasm for early college to those who sought to scale it up based on the positive results of An and other researchers.

Resource Toolbox

An, B.P. (2013). The Impact of Dual Enrollment on College Degree Attainment: Do Low-SES Students Benefit? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35(1), 57-75. doi: 10.3102/0162373712461933

Walk, M. (2020). AheadofSchedule: A Historyof Early College High Schools.

NASSP Bulletin, /04(2), 125-140. doi: 10.1177/0192636520927090


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