Early college high schools help students go to college—and arrive ahead of the game.
At 16, Joseph Garbarini has already learned some important lessons about college life. The workload can be intense, and college campuses usually take up a lot more acreage than high schools.
“It’s seems pretty fine,” he says. “I do a lot of walking. I know freshman year, I had a class all the way at the top of the campus, and then I had drama, and that was all the way on the other side.”
Garbarini has been taking classes at Contra Costa College for the past two years. This summer he challenged himself with chemistry—“one of the hardest classes” at the college, he says—attending morning lectures and afternoon labs four days a week with daily homework and a final at the end of July.
Garbarini is no Doogie Howser–type prodigy. He is just a bright teenager who has long known that he wants to one day work as a police officer or an FBI agent—and possibly also earn a master’s degree or Ph.D. But he lives in a San Pablo neighborhood where going to college isn’t a given. And money is tight for his mother who is raising him and his younger brother on an office manager’s salary. Joseph wants to rack up some college credits while in high school so he can save on famously astronomical four-year college tuition costs and earn his bachelor’s degree a year or two sooner than his peers.
Garbarini, who also volunteers as an Explorer for the Richmond Police Department, has found a path to college and upward mobility, thanks to an early college high school program, at the San Pablo community college. Run in partnership with the West Contra Costa Unified School District, Middle College High School is one of three early college high schools in the East Bay. These schools focus on helping promising students from low-income, minority, or immigrant families prepare academically and socially to get into college and stay there. The fast-track process, combining high school and college, also allows students to graduate from college early, save money, and move onto careers or graduate school.
“Some of our kids come from backgrounds where they would really struggle to make it in their first year or two of college,” says Tracy Corbally, who for six years taught English at the Alameda Science and Technology Institute, known as ASTI, at the College of Alameda, before becoming principal this summer. “They might be the first in their family to go to college. We give them the foundation of how to navigate the college system and live in that environment so that they can stay in college.”
Garbarini’s Middle College High School opened in 1989 and is a precursor to the national early college high school initiative started in 2002 with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The initiative fosters partnerships between community colleges and public high school districts to create small, autonomous campuses that blend high school and college courses into a cohesive educational program.
Starting their freshman year, students enroll in college classes in addition to taking core high school classes needed to graduate. The number of college classes students take increases each year so that by 11th and 12th grade, they are essentially full-time college students.
When they graduate, students will have earned up to two years’ credit that will transfer to a four-year college. They can also earn an associate of arts degree, though this degree isn’t necessary for them to transfer to a four-year school.
There are more than 200 early college high schools nationally and more than 20 in California. In addition to San Pablo’s Middle College High School and Alameda’s ASTI, the other East Bay school is the Aspire Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy in Oakland.
These schools are designed for students like Garbarini who show academic potential in elementary and middle school but face huge barriers in pursuing a post-secondary education. Notably, some come from families unfamiliar with the culture of college preparation and college life. If a student’s parents didn’t go to college, they may not know how to guide her in taking the right mix of challenging high school classes or the necessity of sitting for SATs.
Neither of Jaime Guzman’s parents made it past elementary school in their native Mexico. The recent Middle College High School graduate also grew up in a rough neighborhood in south Richmond, where other boys he knew joined gangs and didn’t aspire to go to college, or even finish high school. A middle school counselor suggested he consider the Middle College program after noticing he liked school and tended to stay out of the center of the school’s social pack. For John Cardenas, another recent Middle College graduate, his father, a mechanic for AC Transit, took some college classes, but his mother didn’t get past sixth grade in her native Mexico. “She couldn’t help me much with the school work,” he says.
Faculty and staff at early college high schools, which typically have just a few hundred students—create a personalized learning program for each student. In addition to starting students in college courses their freshman year, the curriculum also includes college prep activities to teach students how to manage their time around typical college schedules that change daily and require self-initiated study time.
One of Tracy Corbally’s responsibilities at ASTI was to walk all ninth-graders from the ASTI campus—consisting of six portable classrooms where the high school classes take place—over to the College of Alameda to get them officially enrolled as students there. Being successful in college, she explains, often means knowing how to deal with the bureaucracy and paperwork.
But while a personalized learning program and the chance to get ahead sound appealing to many students—and their parents—early college high schools aren’t suitable for every kid.
Unlike regular public high schools, which must admit students in their attendance areas, both Middle College High School and ASTI require interested students to fill out applications and complete essays expressing interest. Middle College High School, which receives 400 to 600 applications for 70 slots, also has students come in for an interview, says Principal Anne Shin.
The application process helps identify students who are likely to thrive in a challenging environment. That is, students who are independent and able to take on college course work. “Many times, it’s the parents who want their kids to be here,” Shin says. “That’s great but if the students don’t have the willingness and desire to be here it’s not the right placement for them.”
Because it’s taken a while for word about ASTI to get around Alameda, the school has enough space to admit students from outside the district, including Oakland and San Leandro. Steven Fong, ASTI’s outgoing principal and director of teaching and learning for the Alameda Unified School District, says faculty look for red flags in a student’s application—poor attendance or low grades in certain subjects—showing that ASTI wouldn’t be a good fit. For the most part, the screening works and ASTI only has a few students each year who have to drop out, he says.
Students who thrive in early college programs must also be able to think “outside the box” of what a high school experience should be like, Fong says.
“They are choosing a school that is very small, a school that’s not focused on sports, and we don’t have a marching band or an orchestra or a lot of the natural activities that you’d have in a school with 1,000 or 2,000 students,” says Fong, though he notes that ASTI has very active robotics and Model United Nations clubs.
“We ask students to sacrifice a lot when they come here,” Fong adds.
There have been students thriving academically at ASTI who nonetheless leave after realizing they miss the social climate and extracurricular activities available at Alameda’s larger, more traditional public high schools, Alameda and Encinal.
Kids in early college high schools can play for teams at the high school in their attendance area. Garbarini played first base and pitcher for Richmond High’s Oilers baseball in ninth grade but not in 10th grade because his academic schedule overlapped with practice.
Guzman and Cardenas admit they missed the sports and social opportunities offered at regular high schools. Guzman said he and his classmates didn’t mix much with the older college students, so he was limited to the other kids in his school. “You don’t get the chance to meet many other people.” Adds Cardenas: “There wasn’t that much student life: a rally once every semester. I missed the dances, the homecoming games, the sports.”
In addition to giving up on the typical American high school experience, early college high school students have to keep up with advanced classes and all the work involved, Fong and Corbally say. Even the English, math, science, and history classes ASTI teaches move at a more accelerated pace than regular high school classes.
“On average their first two years will be more rigorous for them than [for] their peers at regular high schools,” Fong says. “We need to do what we can to get these kids ready for college-level work in two years, whereas with most kids you have four years.”
In Corbally’s English classes, ninth- and 10th-graders read works they might not see until junior or senior year at a regular high school or even until college, such as William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, with its complicated prose style. She also rarely gave students time to read the texts in class. They were expected to do the reading on their own and come to class prepared to discuss and write.
Corbally found most of her students ready for the more intense pace. Corbally admits she was shocked when she walked into her first ASTI class six years ago. She had previously taught at a comprehensive high school in Oakland, and students would sometimes be out of their chairs or talking in groups at the start of class. Her ASTI students, on the other hand, were already in their seats, with eager faces looking up at her to begin the day’s lesson.
When students are taking college courses, they are solely responsible for getting themselves to class and keeping up with their work. As college students, no one is monitoring their attendance or grades on a regular basis, and they rarely get a break in turning in assignments late. The high school staff won’t know if one of their students is struggling in a college class until the end of a semester.
Students must become their own advocates. They can’t have mom or dad or one of their high school teachers bug a professor on their behalf for extra help or to protest a grade. “That shift happens,” Fong says. “The student needs to be the first one to say I need help. I’m going to go to office hours, go to review sessions, or go online and seek out information.”
Garbarini concedes he gets “a lot more work” than he would if he were in a regular high school. “You get the high school homework and then you get the college work,” he says. So far, he has been able to manage the workload but he knows junior year will be tougher as he increases his number of college courses.
Guzman says he sometimes stayed up until 4 a.m. several times a month to study. He struggled his first two years, until he finally figured out how to better prioritize his work. This was especially helpful his senior year when he took a college English class that required up to 40 pages of reading three times a week, in addition to a 2½-page paper. He says he learned not to devote lots of time to the routine assignments but to focus on the major mid-term or final assignments instead. “When it came to doing the final paper, I would spend all my time finishing it.”
While Cardenas sometimes felt burned out by all the studying, he says teachers at Middle College High School offered “a lot of tutoring” and individual attention to help him and his classmates keep up with the course work. His class of 80 students was also close-knit and met regularly for study groups: “It’s like a little family. We helped each other out whenever we could.”
The small school environment helps create strong bonds among students and faculty, ASTI’s Fong and Corbally say. Besides a small population of students, the actual small physical size of the ASTI campus forces students and teachers into tight quarters. Five of its portables are given over to classrooms for the high school classes, leaving the sixth to house everything else, including the principal’s office, counseling office, library, and mail room.
“The student can walk right in and walk up and talk to the principal or counselors,” Fong says. “Students will come in and quietly do homework at the counseling table or not so quietly hang out and talk to us.”
Fong admits the space can feel cramped sometimes, but when students have such easy access to their counselor or principal, it makes them “feel like this school is their place.”
“That makes a really big difference for a young person, that they know their principal will make time to talk to them,” Fong says. “Not that other schools don’t do that, but in a 3,000-person school, you’re not going to be able to walk into the principal’s inner sanctum, not that you couldn’t get an appointment—it’s just different.”
As the only English teacher at ASTI, Corbally often taught kids all four years. That familiarity allowed her to get to know their academic strengths as well as areas where they need help.
“Having the kids in class year after year, I think it makes them trust you more,” she says.
She had juniors and seniors come to her and ask for feedback on essays they were writing for a college class, or to get help on their personal statements for college applications. And after they graduate and go onto college, her ASTI students are more likely to stay in touch.
Certainly test scores don’t tell the whole story, especially when comparing early college high schools, with their small populations, to regular high schools with more academically diverse student bodies of 1,000 or more. Still, the East Bay’s three early college high schools are among the highest performing schools in their districts. ASTI’s 2012 API score was 896, while Alameda and Encinal high schools were 830 and 760 respectively.
Thirty-eight out of 39 ASTI students in the 2011-12 school year graduated, a rate of 97 percent, according to state department of education data. About 75 percent of ASTI students go onto four-year colleges, Fong says.
Popular destinations include Cal State East Bay, San Francisco State University and the top campuses in the University of California system: Berkeley, Davis, and UCLA. A few students are now attending prestigious private schools on the East Coast: Cornell, Smith, and Wesleyan. The quarter who don’t immediately head to a four-year school continue their studies at the College of Alameda.
With its 862 API score, Middle College outperforms other high schools in the often struggling West Contra Costa district, including the high schools where Cardenas, Guzman, and Garbarini would have gone.
As much as Cardenas and Guzman acknowledge they missed the social aspects of regular high school and sometimes felt overwhelmed by all the homework, they are proud and happy they stuck with Middle College, especially now that they have earned credits nearly equivalent to two years of university.
“I liked the opportunity to take college classes to mature more,” says Cardenas, who has some more community college classes to finish before applying to Sonoma State University. He adds that both his parents are happy to save money.
“My dad thinks it will help me be something in my life,” he says.
Garbarini’s mother, Michelle Jewell, had not wanted him to go to Richmond High. Before learning he had been accepted to Middle College the summer before his freshman year, Garbarini was set to attend Salesian, a private Catholic high school in Richmond.
Even with full financial aid, Salesian would have cost Jewell $300 a month. She’s delighted he’s in a rigorous high school program that earns him valuable college credit—and that doesn’t cost her family anything.
Garbarini hasn’t decided where he wants to apply to college—maybe U.C. Berkeley, maybe some place out of state, he says. But he likes knowing he is going somewhere, and he’s excited about his future.
Martha Ross is associate editor of The Monthly and lives in Walnut Creek with her husband and son, a high school sophomore.