WHEELING - A growing segment of society believes the typical high school environment with its social pressures just isn't for everyone.
"Middle colleges" may provide an answer for those people, and West Virginia Northern Community College has launched the first such initiative in the Mountain State. Proponents of the concept, aimed at struggling students, believe middle colleges have the potential to slash dropout rates and change the way teens prepare for life beyond high school.
At the Northern Middle College Early Entrance High School at WVNCC, rising 10th- and 11th-graders in Ohio, Marshall and Brooke counties can earn their high school diploma on the college's Wheeling campus - and can even begin post-secondary course work, according to college President Martin Olshinsky.
(Photo by Ian Hicks)
West Virginia Northern Community College is looking this academic year to build on the success of a “middle college” pilot program it launched last year — the first of its kind in the Mountain State.
Olshinsky said he was involved in starting similar efforts in the Pittsburgh area and felt it would be appropriate to try locally. WVNCC launched the program on a trial basis with 28 students for the 2009-10 school year, and officials were pleased with the results.
"Some of (the students) are really blossoming," Olshinsky said. "They just needed another venue to express themselves."
Thanks to gifts from various foundations and private businesses, there was no tuition cost for students to attend last year, nor will there be this year. Olshinsky is hopeful that will continue.
The "real secret" to middle colleges, he said, lies in two key points: mentor-based instruction and location. Smaller class sizes - often five to 15 students - provide more time for one-on-one instruction, and Olshinsky said it's not uncommon to see teacher and pupil join each other at the lunch table.
"Students and teachers sit together and talk, which a lot of times is what a young adult needs," he said.
Candidates for middle colleges include students who feel disconnected from the traditional high school environment, and are seeking to distance themselves from the accompanying "drama" and social pressures that can make adolescence difficult, Olshinsky noted.
There may be a discrepancy between their performance on standardized tests and their actual grades - they often are gifted in certain academic areas but struggle in others.
"The student has to be willing to make a change," said Olshinsky, adding he admires the courage of the pupils who choose to participate. "They need to have parent support, and students need to be average students who, for whatever reason, just don't feel comfortable in what they're doing in the high school."
Statistics provided by WVNCC show enrollment at Northern Middle College had a positive effect on the students' performance last year. Those students incurred a total of 761 absences during the 2008-09 school year; however, that figure plummeted to 295 in 2009-10.
In their last year of traditional high school, the 28 students' average GPA was 1.89. It rose to 2.4 during their year in the pilot program. Every student increased their skill level in algebra, while 57 percent showed an improvement in reading and writing. All state-required content standard objectives were met, Olshinsky noted.
The students collectively earned 83 college credit hours, an average of nearly three per student. While getting one's high school diploma is the primary focus of Northern Middle College, Olshinsky hopes that statistic will signal a trend.
"The ultimate goal, in a couple of years, is to have these students graduate with an associate's degree and a high school diploma at the same time," he said.
Expansions to the program for the coming school year include addition of another math instructor and a part-time Spanish instructor. Eventually, WVNCC hopes to offer courses in American sign language.
Olshinsky urges anyone who believes they may be a good candidate for the program to discuss it with their high school guidance counselor. Faculty-parent and faculty-student interviews are conducted prior to acceptance into the school, and both students and parents are required to sign "contracts" demonstrating an understanding of expectations.