The Mehlville School District will be graduating its first class of students from its Early College academy program, which gives eligible high school students in the district the opportunity to earn college credit up to an Associate of Arts simultaneously with their high school degree.
The academy will graduate seven students at the end of this school year: Madison Appel, David Genovese, Alex Parum and Melisa Vilic from Oakville High School, and Aryianna Batie, Hannah Drzewiecki and Myia Warden from Mehlville High School.
Mehlville High and Oakville High students enrolled in the program attend college full time and tuition-free at St. Louis Community College campuses. The courses satisfy both high school and college credit requirements and students can still be involved in athletics, arts and other extracurricular programs at their respective schools.
“I have more time to work, some more downtime — but you have to use it wisely. You think classes are only three hours in the morning and you’re done — no. You have to put a lot of effort in while studying, a lot of homework,” said Vilic in a video from the district. “This is like an experience that will let you be different. Not everyone will say that they graduated high school with an associate’s degree. … I kind of wanted to do something more, I wanted to be pushed to my limits so I tried this and I really, really liked it.”
The concept for an Early College program formed in 2016 when Assistant Superintendent Jeff Bresler was leading the High School Innovations Committee. The district had been offering partial credit and dual credit for many years.
“The research that we had done showed that programs that were successful had districts that were investing in the programs and the kids. … That specifically spoke to investing in tuition, books and fees that are associated with attending the community college,” said Director of College and Career Readiness John DeWalle at the February Board of Education meeting. “Those were things that were barriers to a lot of families and … a lot of students — and artificially put there when the district could make a decision to invest in this particular program.”
The first class launched during the 2019-2020 school year with 10 juniors.
Students are eligible if they are older than 16, have a cumulative GPA of 2.5 or higher, meet college readiness indicators in core subjects, attended Mehlville for ninth and 10th grades, have a staff recommendation and completed an Early College application.
“We do look at these applications and requirements annually and make sure they are what they should be,” said DeWalle. “Accurate and up to date.”
There are currently 15 students enrolled in the program: Seven seniors from the original 10 and eight juniors.
The district budgeted $60,000 to cover tuition and book costs for students enrolled this school year, and projected costs for next year are $75,000 for 25 students. In the program’s pilot year, the district budgeted $30,000.
Students are able to take a variety of different courses.
Program expectations ensure that they are following the “scope and sequence” to graduate with requirements, said Dewalle, but otherwise students have independence in selecting their electives just as they would in college.
“One of our hallmarks of our particular program is … the Smart Start course” taught by an Oakville or Mehlville High counselor, said DeWalle. “The purpose … is to make sure that students have a connection to the district but also had someone that was in tune and had a good partnership with the community college. … We wanted to make sure that families, kids … all had someone that they trusted in terms of keeping those connections going.”
District officials are exploring the option in the future of offering a general STEM-related transfer for students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which would equate to an Associate of Science degree. Currently students earn an Associate of Arts.
The district is also looking at a “Make it Count” program for students who have satisfied all their graduation requirements prior to the second semester of their senior year, allowing them an opportunity to earn 15 college credit hours in the second semester.
As the program moves into its third school year, DeWalle said he sees continued opportunities for improvement.
“We’re looking and identifying and addressing obstacles. Some of those came to light with our COVID experience, and logistics were much more of a challenge,” said DeWalle. “Our choice programs overall … are not necessarily reflective of how our student population looks, and I would like to be deliberate in targeting students who may see this as a great opportunity but haven’t been engaged in this opportunity for whatever reason. So there is absolutely work to do.”