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Bill helps Colorado high-schoolers go to college

Bill Scanlon
INDenverTimes.com

Money is very tight, but Nancy Plata desperately wants to be the first one in her family to get a college degree, so she can go on and become a gastroenterologist, helping to treat the digestive-system problems that have bedeviled her extended family.

Plata hasn’t quite graduated from high school yet, but she’s well on her way to an associate’s degree at Community College of Denver.

And she hasn’t paid a dime in college tuition.

Plata is one of about 180 Abraham Lincoln High School students who are attending college on the school district’s dime.

Plata, 19, finished her high school diploma requirements about a year ago, and marched with her class in graduation ceremonies.

“But they held my diploma, so I could get my tuition paid for,” she said.

Lincoln High School has a tradition of so-called “fifth-year” programs to help low-income students earn a year or more of college credits while still in high school.

Few other high schools in the state have taken advantage of it, partly because the rules keep changing, programs are discontinued and no one is clear on what is legal and what isn’t.

But a bill that cleared the House Education Committee 13-0 last week ought to make things a lot clearer.

House Bill 1319, sponsored by Republican Tom Massey and Democrat Mike Merrifield, opens more pathways to post-high school education, and at the same time is expected to reduce the drop-out rate.

Aimed especially for low-income teens, it is both for ambitious students, who want to be well on their way toward a bachelor’s degree by the time they get their high school diplomas; and for the alienated students, who will see a reason to stay if they can get, say, a plumbing certificate or a firefighter’s credential while finishing their high school requirements.

“This removes barriers and restrictions. It is the future of education in Colorado,” Massey said.

Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien said “it is a faster pathway for young adults to be competitive in the job market. Things are tough out there.”

For disengaged students it brings meaning because they can have “real world experiences” outside the traditional classroom, said State. Rep. Judy Solano.

The new legislation will work because community colleges already have indicated that they’re willing to steeply discount – perhaps 65 percent – their typical tuition charges for the high school students, Lincoln High principal Antonio Esquibelsaid.

Esquibel’s predecessor at Lincoln, Scott Menedelsberg, now runs the Gear Up program for the Colorado Department of Education, which will benefit from the new legislation.

“It will make things clearer as to who might take advantage of this,” Mendelsberg said. “It’s going to help students that you don’t see a lot of on college campuses – low-income students, minority students.”

Often, students are biding their time before graduation, taking a couple of classes a semester their senior years, Mendelsberg said. Better that they stay busy with a combination of high school and college classes.

“It is a trick to get a lot of these kids into college,” he said. “When you start to blur the barriers between the two, when they see they can succeed in college classes, it’s going to be better for everybody.”

Mendelsberg said there are plenty of promising career paths – auto mechanic, paramedic, electrician … ” available between a bachelor’s degree on one end and a dead-end job on the other. This legislation makes attaining those jobs easier.

The year before Lincoln High began its fifth-year program just 17 percent of graduates went on to post-secondary education, Mendelsberg said. “I don’t know what to say about the 83 percent. The jobs they could access are not the most productive for them or society.”

The next year, by taking some of the financial difficulties out of the equation, 73 percent of Lincoln’s seniors went on to some kind of post-secondary education.

At the same time, the student population grew from 1,100 to 1,700.

Esquibel said the effort at Lincoln dipped after the State Board of Education ruled that the fifth-year programs weren’t allowable.

Some alternatives are in place now, and 180 kids are taking advantage.

He hopes that with the new legislation, some 600 or 700 students will be in some kind of dual-degree program in the next couple years.

“Nobody understands the rules now,” Esquibel said. “My hope is that when a kid enters ninth grade, he or she has three or four pathways to post-secondary education. By the time they graduate in four or five years, they’ll have anywhere between 30 and 60 credits under their belt. That makes college a lot more affordable.”

By ensuring that the students have a full load – say, six high school classes and two college classes – the district gets the full allotment of School Finance Act money from the state. That way, they can afford to pay the discounted tuition to the colleges.

“It definitely can be affordable, but the high school has to carefully plan it out,” Esquibel said.

“It’s going to be a huge benefit because the light bulb is going to click,” he added. “Kids are going to realize that it is allowing them to get quite a bit of college education for free.”

Nancy Plata, the 19-year-old with ambitions to be a doctor, said college is different – more serious. “You know you have to pay attention and do your work because what you do for yourself is your future,” she said.

She got B’s in high school, and is getting A’s and B’s in college.

She works about 25 hours a week at the Downtown Aquarium while taking 15 credit hours, but still ekes out a little bit of free time.

“My parents are very proud of me, and my grandparents as well,” Plata said. “They just tell me to keep my grades up.”


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