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Feb. 6, 2023

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Yakima schools pilot college credit program as Washington leaders push to expand access

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YAKIMA — Some freshmen in Yakima aren’t just starting high school this year — they’re starting college, too.

That’s because the Yakima School District is piloting a new dual-credit option in partnership with Arizona State University this fall. The goal: Students will graduate from high school with a diploma and an associate degree, without ever having to leave campus.

The new program comes as Washington’s top education official calls for additional funding from the Legislature to cover more of the expenses students pay to earn high school and college credit simultaneously. Some of that money would help schools offer more options, as experts work to help educators better understand how students access dual credit.

It could also lead to a more diverse mix of students who earn college credit, including those from low-income families.

Zaid Munir, a freshman at Eisenhower High School and member of the cross-country team, enrolled in the new ASU program after hearing about it from his eighth grade history teacher. He has a brother who does Running Start — a dual-credit program where students take classes at a nearby community college in their junior and senior years.

Munir chose the ASU program because it’s “half the work in twice the amount of time” compared to Running Start — in other words, he gets to work on a college degree throughout high school without ever leaving campus, and he can start in his freshman year.

Just 60% of Washington’s high school graduates go on to college, and even fewer complete their degrees. That’s why educators are so adamant about getting kids connected to dual-credit options early. An analysis conducted by the nonprofit Washington STEM found that students who complete just one college credit course in high school are more likely to finish college.

How ASU’s self-paced classes work

Yakima is one of three districts in the country piloting the new model. Superintendent Trevor Greene said he hoped to partner with colleges or universities in Washington to offer this program, but none were willing to take it on. With ASU, he found a willing partner that shared his sense of urgency. “We made it work within a year,” he said.

This semester, the ASU cohort is taking a health class. It’s all virtual, so after teacher Katy Allen introduces the day’s assignment, students open their laptops and get to work. Walking into the classroom feels like walking into a college library, where clusters of students talk together about their assignment, and others sit alone, hunched over their notes as they listen to the instructor on their screens.

It’s a self-paced class, with Allen there to facilitate discussions, answer questions, and make sure students are progressing.

Even though the class mostly operates via computer screens, students say they like it. Munir and others knew they wanted to do dual credit to save money on college, but prefer the ASU class to other options because they get to learn at their own pace, work toward an associate degree and start in ninth grade. They also get to stay on campus for assemblies and other school events, and it isn’t as stressful as some other dual-credit classes.

“If all classes were like this, it’d be a breeze,” said student Jesus Badillo-Ramirez, describing the content as accessible and easy to understand. He wants to go to Harvard after he graduates, and had planned to sign up for an honors health class before his counselor recommended the ASU program.

With 75 students enrolled, the first-of-its-kind program is an example of how dual-credit options are evolving as educators learn more about who’s using them and their impact.

Eisenhower staff conducted an in-depth analysis about how students access college credit, then used that information to help inform how to further expand dual-credit options. Now, the school is offering more College in the High School classes and additional training so teachers know where to send students for more information — or how to provide it themselves.

Gabe Stotz played a key role. He was a career technical education teacher and college and career specialist at Eisenhower, and would occasionally teach Advanced Placement classes. He noticed the AP students didn’t reflect the increasingly diverse makeup of the school’s student body — roughly 80% of the students in the district are now Hispanic or Latino.

He had a hunch that the school’s dual-credit options were more accessible to some kids than others.

“I could see the disparities between the two different kinds of courses and I wanted some solid quantitative data to back that up,” Stotz said.

It turns out, he was right.

With grant funding and a partnership with Washington STEM, Stotz dug into the data to find out which classes students were enrolling in, how they were getting there, and what impact dual credit might have on their college success.

The data showed that Latino boys were significantly underrepresented in math-based dual-credit courses, and enrolled in higher numbers in agricultural or low-level career technical education classes.

“With the course-taking data and the outcomes … it wasn’t necessarily surprising, unfortunately, because it matches some national trends in terms of what we know about access to dual credit,” said Jenee Myers Twitchell, chief impact and policy officer at Washington STEM.

Washington STEM receives funding from the Gates Foundation, which also supports The Seattle Times Education Lab.

Replicating the research in Yakima

After its partnership with Eisenhower, Washington STEM fine-tuned its research methodology, then replicated that work with other schools to better understand inequities along the lines of race, income, gender and location. They looked at course data and outcomes after high school, conducted teacher and student surveys to learn more about college-going perceptions and aspirations, and interviewed students about what information they wanted and where they wanted to get it.

Their findings revealed that teachers had vastly different perceptions of college-going beliefs than their students.

For example, teachers believed that about 48% of students wanted to attend college, yet 88% of students said that they had college aspirations. About 71% of all students said they received information about dual-credit options, but Black, Latino, and Native American students were less likely to have received that information.

And although schools have pointed students to outside sources for information about financial aid and other college-related material, students said they wanted more information from their school.

According to OSPI data, about 62% of Washington high schoolers completed a dual-credit course during the 2020-21 school year, with most earning credit through career technical education classes. Participation in dual credit has slowly increased over the years, but low-income students still don’t complete these courses at the same rate as their higher-income peers.

Another reason why dual-credit options stand out in Yakima: Students don’t have to pay for the college credit they’re earning because the school district and state grants pick up the tab. College in the High School is still cheaper than regular college tuition, but some students outside of Yakima could pay up to $69 per credit. The principal at Eisenhower, Eric Diener, says the amount spent on students’ dual-credit work has quadrupled in the past two years.

Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal hopes that with an investment from the Legislature, costs can go down for students and schools statewide. Reykdal is asking lawmakers to provide $99 million in the next biennium to cover the cost of dual-credit exams, reduce tuition costs for students earning college credit, and eliminate fees students pay to take college-level courses during high school.

“Our entire public policy objective ought to be: How do we get into rooms and shrink the time in college while they are in high school and we are already paying for that seat time?” Reykdal said.

But Reykdal and others, including Greene, hope the Legislature can work with colleges and universities to make credits earned in high school transfer more easily, too. As the district cemented its partnership with ASU, some higher education institutions in Washington warned that they might not accept the ASU associate degrees. Greene calls it “unfortunate” that local universities aren’t more excited about the program, because it could drive students out-of-state for college.

“We’re going to have more kids going to Arizona State than we are going to WSU,” Greene said. “I don’t understand the logic of making our students go look outside of our region for resources that are readily available.”

Meanwhile, Stotz says the mindset around dual credit in middle and high school continues to change. He believes the state could help streamline data access for schools so they can more easily analyze their programs.

“There are so many barriers to just getting the data,” Stotz said, adding that many schools don’t have people with the time and expertise to find and analyze it.

That’s why Washington STEM is partnering with education networks across the state, deploying a “train the trainer” approach so more schools can conduct their own analysis and connect students with dual credit and financial aid opportunities, said Tana Peterman, Washington STEM’s senior program officer for K-12.

“By this time next year we should have 16 to 20 more schools that have gone through this process and are making changes at the school level,” Peterman said.

Ultimately, Peterman said, the more schools analyze and share their data, the more likely it is that common trends or inequities can be addressed by state policy adjustments. Earlier this year, lawmakers also approved legislation requiring state education agencies to submit an annual data report about student enrollment and performance in dual-credit programs.

At Eisenhower, students in the new ASU pilot program have their sights set on a wide range of college or career pathways, including ministry, law school or commercial real estate. But no matter where they end up, they’re ready to make the most of the next four years — especially if spending time on college now costs them fewer dollars later.

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