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Early College Program leads to success for Indiana Students

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One of the longest running initiatives in the 20-year history of the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning (CELL) is the Early College program, which allows Indiana high school students to earn college credit during their high school years, thus saving time and money.

But for CELL Executive Director Carey Dahncke, the impact goes well beyond simple cost savings. “Participating in the Early College program develops a college-going culture,” he said. “The data says that an Early College High School graduate is five to seven times more likely to complete their post-secondary education.”

The Early College program allows students to earn both a high school diploma and up to two years of credit toward a bachelor’s degree, or an associate degree. While open to all students, the model seeks to serve low-income young people, first-generation college students, English language learners, and students of color, all of whom are statistically underrepresented in higher education. The Indiana Commission for Higher Education has authorized CELL as the sole endorser of Early College high schools in Indiana.

Each Early College high school has a partner higher education institution to implement the Early College curriculum. The partner institutions will inspect the rigor of the class, and the course syllabus, as well as conduct an observation, to make sure the classes are meeting the standard of postsecondary education.

One of those schools is Greensburg High School, located about an hour southeast of Indianapolis. As a “mentor school” in the Rural Early College Network for other high schools hoping to become credentialed as an Early College school, Greensburg High School is led by principal Grant Peters. Peters is a UIndy alum twice over, graduating with an undergraduate marketing degree in 2002 and a master’s in teaching in 2005, when he transitioned from the business world into a licensed teaching position.

“Families in our community are starting to understand what it means for us to be an Early College High School,” he said. “People understand that these courses are more rigorous, not just to put a feather in their cap, but it provides them direct value.”

Like Dahncke, for Peters being a part of the Early College initiative wasn’t just about providing time and cost value to his students. “Everyone has their own measures for proving that a school is successful,” Peters said, referring to a variety of things including standardized testing scores and letter grades. “We do have accountability to the state, and that is important, but what’s really important is getting our kids prepared skills wise.”

Peters says that taking more rigorous classes prepares students for “productive struggle,” the process of effortful learning that develops “grit” and creative problem solving. “The college course load prepares them to be problem solvers after high school, to set goals, and to be ambitious,” he said. “All these things are built in, and they’re a driving focus for our school. The decisions we make are all aligned with student outcomes.”

Peters relates to the productive struggle his students face, reflecting on his time at UIndy where he walked on the basketball team. “I learned leadership skills and the grit it takes to stick with something,” he said. “I learned about building relationships with a diverse group of people from different places with different values. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”

Dahncke says the program drives those student outcomes by helping to develop a college-going culture by “putting goals around campus visits and helping parents understand financial aid opportunities; kind of packaging up all the ancillary things too.”

Indiana ranks 42nd in the nation for its percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Data shows that For every 100 ninth-grade students, only 70 will graduate from high school within four years. Of those students, only 45 will enter college the following fall. By their college sophomore year, just 32 will still be enrolled. By the end of college, only 16 of those original 100 students will graduate on time. Improving these outcomes is a central focus for the Early College program.

“This problem is exacerbated particularly in rural outlying areas,” Dahncke said. “You have lots of kids who struggle with trying to make the transition from their school of 300 students to a college campus with thousands and dealing with that both academically and socially.”

This is where the Rural Early College Network (RECN), established by CELL after being awarded a $7.9 million grant from the United States Department of Education in the fall of 2019, comes into play. This project focuses on helping rural high schools implement high quality, sustainable Early College programs through a system of support, coaching and a network approach.

Greensburg is one of five high schools across the state that serve as a mentor school in RECN. These mentor schools provide guidance to other schools as they seek to become endorsed as an Early College High School by CELL. “Even in those meetings, where we’re helping these other schools, I’m still sitting there and learning things to take back to our own program,” Peters said. “So it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”

CELL also provides institutional support to the high schools seeking Early College endorsement. “A big part of it is providing professional development opportunities and helping schools understand the core principles around Early College,” Dahncke said. STEM Teach Indiana and Teach Dual Credit Indiana are two programs CELL offers to help teachers who are working to become credentialed to teach dual credit courses. In some cases they also receive stipends for completing coursework or a master’s program. “We’re trying to incentivize educators to stay in these districts,” Dahncke said. “And with regards to students, we want to target the core of the student population, because you get a lot more momentum across the entire school when you do that.”

As an administrator and educator, there’s a lot of “baggage” that must be dealt with on a regular basis for Peters—from disciplinary issues, to budgetary constraints, to taking policy decided in completely different parts of the state or country and applying it to his rural high school. “But this program is one of those things that I know provides real value and makes me feel good about what we’re doing for the kids,” he said. “The efforts of CELL and what we do on the local level, it’s all about trying to do what’s right for the kids.”