Four seniors graduated from Commonwealth Middle College this year with a diploma and an associate degree: Ali Greer, left, Jeremy Sneed, Jackie Lile and Katie Young (not pictured). All four plan on attending college in the fall. Photo by Amy Wallot, April 29, 2011

Four seniors graduated from Commonwealth Middle College this year with a diploma and an associate degree: Ali Greer, left, Jeremy Sneed, Jackie Lile and Katie Young (not pictured). All four plan on attending college in the fall. Photo by Amy Wallot, April 29, 2011

By Matthew Tungate

When four students from the McCracken and Marshall County school districts graduated in May, there may have been no one prouder than Donna Wear. Wear is principal of Commonwealth Middle College, and the four students graduated with not only their high school diplomas, but also with their associate degrees from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah.

The program started as a vision of McCracken County and Marshall County school districts and West Kentucky Community and Technical College, Wear said. Thanks to a five-year, $620,000 grant from the Lay Family Foundation, Commonwealth Middle College students are able to take high school and college classes for free at West Kentucky Community and Technical College during their junior and senior years, she said.

“We knew that we had some students who, by the time they get to be juniors, they might lose a little bit of interest, or sometimes they become bored with what’s going on at their own school. It doesn’t mean they dislike their school – they’re just looking for a challenge,” said the 35-year education veteran, a former principal at Lone Oak (McCracken County) and Ballard Memorial (Ballard County) high schools.

Increasing student engagement is a key component of the middle college concept, according to David Cook, Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) director of Innovation and Partner Engagement.

Middle colleges’ purpose is “to get kids back on track, and in doing that, build in college credit so these kids feel a sense that they can actually do college work and, therefore, they not only don’t drop out, but they get their diploma and go on to college,” he said.

Educators constantly talk about student engagement, Cook said.

“This is just another opportunity to take a group of kids that may not be engaged and giving them an opportunity to be more successful,” he said. “So even if they weren’t at-risk of dropping out, you’re giving them confidence, and you’re giving them an opportunity to see what potential they have – more so than you would in a traditional sense.”

Commonwealth Middle College growing

Wear said Commonwealth Middle College isn’t for everyone – but it seems to be catching on.

The first class in fall 2009 consisted of 50 students from McCracken County (Heath, Lone Oak and Reidland high schools) and Marshall County High. They had 82 applicants that first year.

In fall 2010, 94 students applied for the 50 spots.

This fall, Commonwealth Middle College also is open to students at Graves County and Paducah Tilghman high schools. Enrollment will grow to 80 students – selected from the 263 who applied.

“That’s the growth of our program in a very short time,” Wear said. “We’re obviously very thrilled.”

There is a financial incentive. Wear said the Lay grant and school districts pay for 36 hours of college credit, but students can take more classes if they choose – as did the four students who graduated with a degree.

For students who graduate with a 3.0 grade-point average in both their high school and college classes, the community college pays for their tuition to finish an associate degree, Wear said.

“So they are actually getting two full years with no cost to their families,” she said.

Wear said high school is about giving students opportunities but traditional high school doesn’t fit everyone’s needs.

“We’re looking for students who may not be involved in lots of activities at their school, who are strong enough to do academic work, who need a challenge in what they’re doing,” she said. “They’re all seeking something a little bit different from what their normal high school has provided for them.”

However, she makes it clear that Commonwealth Middle College students are still high school students.

“We’re just an extension of the schools. It’s not to supersede the schools, and it’s certainly not to take their place in any way,” Wear said. “We just want to provide another opportunity for some of the students at their school.”

Students are in Infinite Campus, take state accountability tests and the ACT, and graduate from their high schools. They go to prom, and participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities, she said.

Every semester students take three college and two high school classes on the West Kentucky Community and Technical College campus. The middle college has four high school teachers: mathematics, English, science and social studies. So a junior will typically take English III; U.S. History or Economics and Government; Pre-Calculus or Algebra II; and Chemistry or Physics. But instead of taking electives at their high schools, they take dual-credit college classes with college professors and college students.

“I’ve been doing this a long time. I don’t let them pick anything they want, trust me. That very first semester they have a very short list of classes from which they can choose,” Wear said with a hearty laugh.

Once they progress through the program and find their career path, students can choose classes that will benefit them, she said.

“What you’re trying to do is to help some of those find a real direction,” Wear said. “We have students that are going to be engineers and doctors, and then I have some that are going to be cosmetologists and construction workers.”

On-campus middle college not only option

Stacy Edds-Ellis, associate dean of Academic Affairs at Owensboro Community and Technical College, has seen how successful an on-campus middle college can be. The community college housed Collegiate High School for three years beginning in fall 2004.

It was paid for with a three-year grant and had up to 80 students.

“We were essentially their home high school,” Edds-Ellis said.

But the grant ran out and “there wasn’t an infrastructure to help,” she said, so the program ended. “It wasn’t a lack of program success.”

Collegiate High School graduated about 20 students with associate degrees and diplomas at the same time. Many of those who didn’t get a degree have gone on to do so, Edds-Ellis said.

“I have seen the students who didn’t finish their associate degree through the middle college program on this campus get re-enrolled, get started and graduate from OCTC,” she said, “because our faculty and staff are familiar to them, they have the confidence to finish a degree, certificate or diploma, where I think if they didn’t have that opportunity through the early middle college in high school, we would have never seen them.”

Collegiate High School was ahead of its time, and Edds-Ellis expects to get back to an on-campus middle college one day.

Until then, the community college has partnered with eight public and private school districts and associations on a program called Discover College.

Discover College started in fall 2001 with 356 students. Last year, 2,662 high school students were part of the dual-credit program on campus and in partner high schools, said Edds-Ellis, who also serves as Discover College director.

Unlike its counterpart in Paducah, Discover College students have four options for college classes.

Some classes are college campus-based and some are school-based. They are divided into technical and general education at each site. General education includes classes such as mathematics, English, public speaking and history. Technical classes include engineering, electronics, welding, industrial maintenance and health science, among others, Edds-Ellis said.

Juniors and seniors who attend technical classes for half a day at one of Owensboro Community and Technical College’s campuses traditionally do not have to pay tuition. The state  helps defray the costs, and the college waives the remainder, she said.

Currently, students also can take college-credit technical classes at their high schools for free.

High school seniors may take general education classes for one period per day at the community college. Students pay their own costs and must provide their own transportation.

Students may earn general education college credit while attending classes at their high schools, as well, and they pay for tuition and books.

All four programs are dual credit, Edds-Ellis said. All of their high school classes are taken at their home high schools.

To participate in Discover College, a student must meet ACT college readiness benchmarks or COMPASS scores for college placement and have a guidance counselor recommendation.

“We do have students who have had attendance, grades, motivation and behavioral issues in their high schools, but scores demonstrate that they are capable of doing it, and they come to campus, and you know what? They do it, and we don’t have those issues with them,” Edds-Ellis said.

High school students make up a third of the campus population, she said, and she is a proponent of getting students onto campus. Students take school more seriously when they are sitting next to a college freshman or a displaced worker trying to make ends meet for his or her family.

“We really have found that there’s power in the site, meaning they really rise to the occasion into the expectation,” she said. “Not only is it good for the high school students, but it’s also refreshing to our adult learners to see the next generation coming up. It’s kind of a win-win for both sides.”

Edds-Ellis has seen how well middle college works.

She remembers a student who enrolled in Collegiate High School. The 16-year-old was behind in her high school credits, and that was the least of her problems. Her parents were in jail on drug offenses, and she had other family issues. She was living on her own, paying her bills and going to school, Edds-Ellis said.

She went through the program and got her diploma and an associate degree. Now she’s at a university finishing her bachelor’s degree.

“She has separated herself (from her bad situation) and has another world view of where she wants to go compared to where she was probably headed just by virtue of her circumstance,” Edds-Ellis said. “Education really empowered her.

“You can imagine if educational policies and legislation and funding supported these opportunities what kind of dent we can make in our society. A lot of these students we’ve turned from tax liabilities into taxpayers.”

Donna Wear,, (270) 534-3350
Stacy Edds-Ellis,, (270) 686-4573
David Cook,, (502) 564-4201