While many high schoolers are focused on sports and the fun activities they'll enjoy during the summer, Sandy High incoming senior Brissa Luna is planning for her future career.
Luna aspires to have a job in hematology-oncology and pediatrics. She sees her participation in the Middle College program at Mt. Hood Community College as a practical step on her career path.
"I've had a lot of people close to me pass away from cancer and I've always wanted to work with children," Luna explains of her career decision.
The 17-year-old is one of the hundreds of local high school students who spend part of their time in high school — usually their junior and senior years — pursuing some of their education at community college. They sometimes earn their high school diploma and associate degree simultaneously.
"It provides you with a lot of college experience sooner," Luna notes. "My decision to do middle college courses had a lot to do with what I wanted for my future and getting a headstart on that."
That's also the case with Collin-Kazu Lewis, 16, who goes by "Kazu," a student in the Metro East program who attends MHCC full time. Lewis was elected student body president at the college for the 2019-20 year, the youngest student body president ever.
After three years at MHCC, the go-getter plans to transfer to a four-year college to finish his education and then head to medical school.
"I thought I might as well get an early start to my academic journey," the affable teen notes.
Surge in programs
An increasing number of ambitious high school students are signing up to attend college during high school. Sandy High has participated in the program for about four to five years.
"We started off small to gauge interest," noted Oregon Trail School District Director of Teaching and Learning Tim Werner.
In the first few years, Sandy only had a handful of students taking advantage of the middle college opportunity. This upcoming year, 22 Pioneers will attend MHCC's program.
"There is huge growth in the program," says Kelly Kanyid, Mt. Hood's Middle College adviser.
Mt. Hood had 12 Middle College students in 2013, growing to 92 by 2018. Lewis said he has at least five high school students in each of his MHCC classes.
"Our program is a living, breathing, expanding, growing, evolving program that is student-centered," Kanyid says.
There are several different high school college programs with slightly different names and rules.
Sandy High School has partnered with MHCC to give its students access to the college's formalized Middle College program. The Middle College also has arrangements with Centennial, Corbett, David Douglas, Parkrose, Reynolds and Sandy high schools and Gresham-Barlow district students through Springwater Trail High School. MHCC also works with Sandy Blended Learning Center, Reynolds Learning Academy and Rey Academy.
"Generally, the districts are just looking for ways to get kids where they want to go in life," notes Werner. "I think dual credit is a good thing to offer kids who want to start on that college experience earlier. I think some students are just ready for that next level of challenge. It opens up opportunity for kids just seeking another challenge and want to get a jump start on their career."
The formal MHCC Middle College program offers many types of support for the high schoolers. In addition to tutoring and writing help, Kanyid organizes "study jams" for courses commonly taken by the high school students, monitors the students' progress and steps in if things are going off the rails.
Next year she's looking to add self-care seminars and other help.
"The main goal is to make sure they graduate from high school and have some college credits," Kanyid says.
Not all Middle College students get their associate's degree and high school diplomas at the same time, though Luna will.
"It runs the gamut," Kanyid says. "Some are students who are just done with the high school culture. This is a great alternative for them."
They all have one thing in common.
"They want to learn," she says.
The programs can be a tricky path for high schoolers aiming for an associate degree because students have to carefully plan their course work to make sure they are satisfying both high school graduation requirements and the classes necessary to earn an associate degree.
There is also the challenge of doing college-level work at age 17 or younger.
Luna says there are good tutoring services, and MHCC's Middle College counselors keep the high schoolers on track.
Luna currently boasts a 3.896 grade point average at the college.
"Personally, I'm the first one in my family to go to college, so I don't have that relative to (guide me)," says Luna. "(The college) definitely does have a lot of good resources as far as tutoring and counseling. The counselor for the Middle College is great. She really does care about you and your grades and your future."
The other challenge for Luna is the catch-22 of being a high schooler paying for college classes. Without a diploma she isn't eligible for grant funding for the additional classes she might want to take to further her career prep. So she works two jobs to help pay her way at MHCC.
"I like to be independent," Luna says of why she's taken it all upon herself to fund her education.
Students say they felt completely accepted by the wide age-range of students who attend community college and felt their instructors treated them with respect.
"It's just a great change in atmosphere," Luna notes. "You have to be more mature and independent. It's not as structured as high school."
She adds that the MHCC program prepares students better for what college will be like.
Of course, there are other ways to earn college credits in high school. Some students opt to stay in their high schools and earn college credits through programs such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or online college options.
The early and middle college programs are a boon for most of the students.
"It might be really hard and stressful, but I definitely feel like it'll be worth it in the end," Luna says. "I'm looking forward to continuing my academic career and transferring out."
There are some downsides, however. Transportation is not provided for early college students, so they have to find their own way to the college campus.
College classes are often bigger than in high school, and students have to learn to advocate for themselves and be more aggressive in reaching out if they need help.
Lewis admits he misses his friends from Reynolds High School and Walt Morey Middle School, but adds, "there is a lot more freedom. This is way better than high school, in my opinion."
Luna has had a similar experience.
"I do miss my friends," she says. "And I feel like that (possibility of missing them) was definitely one of the things holding me back. It does kind of feel lonely. In high school, you have those people all of the time."
In the end, Luna still believes Middle College was the right path for her, and she would recommend the opportunity to others.
"It's going to cost money, and it's going to cost time. So, you have to be willing to do that," Luna explains. "You want to make sure you're ready to take on the stress and different atmosphere. It's something you definitely have to be motivated for and strive for, but I think it's worth it."
Early college programs offer multiple attractions
Early college programs can save students and their check-writing parents a lot of money.
The high school pays for all or most of the community college tuition and some, even a stipend for books. That can be a big relief in these days of huge student loan burdens.
Others take part because they find college more interesting and challenging.
"At Reynolds High School there are a wide range of classes, but compared to community college, it's nothing," said Collin-Kazu Lewis, Mt. Hood Community College student body president.
For example, students can satisfy physical education requirements with rock climbing or whitewater rafting at MHCC.
While many students are on an academic track to transfer to a four year institution, not all do.
"This year we had our first welder," says Kelly Kanyid, Mt. Hood's Middle College adviser, breaking in to a broad grin. One student graduated with a certificate in welding, "and right out of high school he has a good paying job."
Amy Swank, early college counselor at Metro East Web Academy, says once the students start on the early college track they are almost always successful. They stay and get their associate's degree and "most keep the GPA they came in with."
Brissa Luna has a 3.896 grade point average at MHCC.
For the formal MHCC Middle College program, prospective students must be referred and approved by their home high school before enrollment and registration at the college. The high schools determine their criteria for the program, such a minimum grade point average.
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