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March/April 2013

Practical PR: Communicating a chance to graduate two ways
by Mike Chapin

Mike Chapin is community relations director for Aurora West USD 129 and a board member of the Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.

Architects of the dual-credit program at West Aurora High School have dubbed one of this year’s senior class members the “First Completer.” The student, Angel, is expected to finish his fire science certificate of achievement, which is 23 college hours of study, a few weeks before he graduates from high school.

Angel is one of hundreds of West Aurora High School students who will graduate this spring with much more than a diploma. This past fall, thanks to an unprecedented, expanding relationship with Waubonsee Community College (WCC), 597 West students took 2,213 credit hours in college-level courses with an outstanding 88 percent success rate. The savings to district families exceeds $250,000 even at affordable community college rates.

Though impressive, this expanding West Aurora/WCC partnership is closing in on an even more ambitious goal: next year’s qualified incoming freshmen actually will be able to graduate from college with an associate degree when they graduate from high school.

The challenge will be to communicate all the new possibilities to families so students can take advantage of them.

Dual-credit courses allow a high school junior or senior to earn college credit and high school credit simultaneously for a course. The concept fits perfectly with challenging economic conditions and a growing need for a better-educated workforce. Earning dual-credit makes a student’s transition to the collegiate campus smoother and increases the likelihood that the student will graduate from college.

Partnership formed

Shawn Munos, West Aurora High School’s assistant principal for curriculum, wanted to create a dual-credit program with the depth and breadth that could reach nearly every student. She found a partner with a similar vision in Dora Phillips, WCC’s community education program developer.

Together, the two crafted a program that serves:

•  highest achieving students who are college bound and seek challenging classes that could coordinate with honors and AP offerings;

•  solid, hard-working, college-level B students who are going to go on and be successful.

•  dual-language Spanish-speaking students who need to develop skills in their native language;

•  career and technical education (CTE) students who have a chosen career interest and would be transitioning to the community college for certificate programs; and

•  test-challenged students falling below the college readiness benchmark ACT scores.

Many of these students are capable of taking dual-credit classes from credentialed instructors that allow them to earn all the credits they need for their freshman year of college general education requirements.

Some, like Angel, will even attain certification in fields like certified nursing assistant (CNA), phlebotomy technician or firefighter, with the ability to work in those fields after high school graduation.

The high school also offers four Spanish classes — two courses to promote upper-level Spanish language skills in native English speakers and two courses to advance reading and writing skills for Spanish speakers in their native language. These transfer-level classes can be used in a traditional liberal arts college program or as part of a bilingual career path.

Another ground-breaking program addresses college readiness needs. Too often students end up needing four years to finish a two-year college degree because they must first complete remedial, developmental classes.

The new West/WCC program permits students to complete the full developmental math and English course sequences during their junior and senior years of high school. When these students are successful, they can enroll in college and be academically ready to walk into a general education or career program without needing further remediation. This saves them tuition money and makes them far more likely to complete their college coursework.

More than 20 additional courses are under development for 2013-14. The emphasis will be on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and CTE classes.

Think six, not four years

Given this new opportunity for students to earn college credit, an associate degree or certifications while still in high school, incoming freshmen and their parents have to begin thinking of a six-year plan of education, at least, or they are going to miss something available to them. Equally important, the high school counselors must be able to answer every question about a path a student should be taking.

Munos has been working one-on-one with counselors. In addition, WCC has just developed a dual-credit handbook for families. It answers basic parent questions such as how will this impact my student’s GPA and what is the difference between a learning enhancement class and a transfer-level class.

“To me the ultimate goal is everyone walks in here with this opportunity,” said Munos. “We will push you, push you and push you and if you don’t take it, okay. It is there for everybody, regardless of your ability, disability, or lack of success prior to us.”

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