"We fit a very unique need"
At-risk students in one Michigan county have the opportunity to go from dropouts to college graduates all in one place.
Mott Middle College High School, run by the Genesee County Intermediate School District and located on the campus of Mott Community College, offers students the choice of earning a high school diploma and working toward an associate’s degree simultaneously. This is made possible under the 1996 Postsecondary Enrollment Options Act.
"We fit a very unique need," says Thomas Svitkovich, superintendent for the Genesee ISD. "There aren’t many intermediate school districts that run high schools, much less one located on a college campus."
Mott Middle College High School was the 12th such school to open in the nation, getting its start 15 years ago. It involves the cooperation of 21 K-12 districts in Genesee County, the ISD and the college.
"It takes a lot of cooperation on everyone’s part to make this work," Svitkovich said.
Individual districts must sign a release form for students who want to attend Mott Middle College. Flint Community Schools acts as the fiscal agent, receiving the foundation allowance for each student, and then passing it along to the GISD, which acts as the operating agent. Flint keeps 10 percent of the foundation allowance for administrative costs, but 100 percent of any grants or charitable contributions go directly to GISD.
"We operate the school, set policy and pay for the dual enrollment," Svitkovich said. "Mott Community College partners with us by providing the facility and serving on our advisory board."
"In many ways, we are part of the college," said Chery Wagonlander, the high school’s principal. "If we order something like say, volleyball nets, the college gets to use them, too. By the same regard, our students get to use the college’s science labs. If we use anything consumable, it’s billed back to us."
The bottom line is, we’re trying to help these students become productive members of society, not a burden.
When the middle college high school first began, taking college-level courses was an option for students, but it now is mandatory.
"We had several years in a row where 100 percent of our graduates were going on to four-year colleges," Svitkovich said. "So we redesigned things so that now, dual enrollment is a must. Our mission is to have them earn a high school diploma, while earning as many college credits as they can handle, up to and including an associate’s degree."
Taking college classes while still in high school is important for the future success of the students.
"For many of these kids, they are the first ones in their family to ever think about going to college," Wagonlander said. "The more college credits they take and the more success they have here, the better their chances of succeeding at a four-year college when they leave."
"Only about 25 percent of all students who enter college end up graduating (nationwide)," Svitkovich said. "These kids have a lot of other issues to deal with, and we realized they need mentors and cheerleaders and someone to make sure their homework is completed."
At the high school level, students take classes that are considered part of a college prep curriculum. Classes include traditional courses of study such as English, math and science, along with a heavy emphasis on fine arts, from theater to dance to music to painting. Most students who enter Mott Middle College are found to be "right brain dominant," which means they tend to be intuitive, creative and abstract learners. They also excel at hands-on, experiential forms of learning.
"Every student has an individualized, customized program," Wagonlander says. "There is a lot of blending in how we teach, how the guidance works. It’s beyond seamless."
Failure is not an option in high school classes.
"If they don’t get a C or better, they take the class again," Wagonlander said. "We like to think of this as a high school, not a building. There is a lot of focus on accomplishments and learning."
That strict approach translates into success at the next level. During the 2004-2005 school year, Mott Middle College saw about 360 students take part in more than 250 different college classes, with none receiving lower than a 3.0 grade point average.
Students come to Mott Middle College for several reasons, and via several paths.
"Many are referred to us by their high schools, some come in themselves and others are brought in by parents," Svitkovich said. "We have a very thorough intake process, because those kids who have severe discipline problems or are violent, we just don’t have the capacity to deal with that history."
Svitkovich said it takes a particular type of student to thrive in the middle college high school setting.
"There has to be a certain level of self control, because there is a great deal of freedom on a college campus," he added. "There is a potential to be successful, but the student has to have the basic ability to handle a fairly sophisticated curriculum."
Wagonlander said attendance is at the root of many student problems.
"One reason they weren’t succeeding in their old schools was because of deplorable attendance habits," she said. "We tell them, if we don’t have you, we can’t work with you."
Some students end up returning to their original schools, once they figure out how to be more successful and responsible. Most stay, and one former student has even returned to teach at the high school.
Aside from taking classes at Mott Community College, some participants can dual enroll at other colleges. The Greater Flint Education Consortium, which consists of the Genesee ISD, 21 K-12 school districts, Flint Powers Catholic High School, Mott, Baker College, University of Michigan at Flint and Kettering University, provides multiple opportunities for students countywide, not just those who attend Mott Middle College.
"We have a great working relationship," Svitkovich said. "Although the majority of our kids take classes at Mott, we always try to look for the right program for the student. There is a variety from which to choose."
Svitkovich said the program has hosted visits from at least a half dozen other Michigan community colleges who may be interested in starting similar programs. Asked why there aren’t more already up and running, Svitkovich said that is due to the result of several factors.
"There are a lot of hurdles to cross," he said. "Facility space is a big one. This type of program has to be done on a college campus, because that’s a big motivator for the students."
The philosophy of various school districts also plays a part, as well as other alternatives already are being offered.
The future of middle college high schools, however, may be jeopardized by various legislative initiatives, including the anticipated changes in high school graduation requirements.
"Some of the Department of Education rules and regulations can be very restrictive," Svitkovich said. "We can’t keep a student past the age of 20 already, and some changes being talked about might take away the ability for students to do a fifth year. This type of program needs to be very flexible in order to deliver the type of product we do."
Svitkovich said he hopes any further legislative changes will take that flexibility into account.
"When you look at what dropouts cost society, it makes more sense to pay now rather than later," he said. "For example, some don’t feel it is appropriate to use K-12 money to pay for dual enrollment in college classes. The bottom line is, we’re trying to help these students become productive members of society, not a burden."