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Getting a jump on college

High school program seen as boost to Randolph

Eleventh-grader Kelsey Spearin studies mitosis in AP biology class. Eleventh-grader Kelsey Spearin studies mitosis in AP biology class. (Randolph High School)
By Wendy Chow
Globe Staff / June 10, 2010

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Just a few years ago, Randolph was considered a town in decline: School programs were being cut, MCAS scores were low, political controversies plagued Town Hall, and a series of homicides made the headlines.

The school district had the dubious distinction of being one of four towns in the Commonwealth named under-performing, and it narrowly escaped a state takeover in 2008. The state approved a turnaround plan for the schools and has provided many hours of staff support to help implement it.

Now the work is beginning to pay off: The Harvard Graduate School of Education recently recognized Randolph High as an “exemplary school,’’ and the school was featured in a workshop at the university as one of three that are among the most effective in Massachusetts at producing eighth-grade to 10th-grade learning gains with racially and socioeconomically diverse student populations.

Then last month, in a huge leap forward, the Randolph School Committee approved a program to begin in fall 2011 that will allow students to earn a liberal arts associate’s degree while still in high school.

“There are 223 early-college high schools across the country, and we’ve been told by the College Board that, nationally, this is the most comprehensive plan they’ve heard of,’’ said Nicola Micozzi Jr., director of science for the school district.

Under the plan, Randolph juniors and seniors would take college-level courses at Randolph High and simultaneously earn their high school diploma and associate’s degree from Massasoit Community College. And students who graduate from the program, to be called Randolph College Academy, would be able to attend any state college as a junior.

The School Committee gave the plan its unanimous support May 6.

Statewide, many high schools have dual enrollment programs where students take courses at nearby colleges and earn credits. Going beyond that is Amesbury, which recently formed a partnership with Northern Essex Community College. Since September, students in the Amesbury High School Early College Program have been taking advanced-level history and English courses, and at the end of the school year they will each have nine transferable college credits.

The Randolph program will go even further with the associate’s degree. Students will also be required to participate in 45 hours of online video/digital learning and put in at least 100 hours of additional learning through academic competition, internship, apprenticeship, or community service.

William Conard, principal of Randolph High School, says the Randolph program is unique because it is essentially redesigning the high school curriculum. “We still have a year and a half of planning, but in talking with our partners, we know this program is doable,’’ he said.

The projected fee for students is $50 per course. Students would be expected to take 12 courses as juniors and 10 courses in their senior year, for a cost of 1,100.

That fee is minimal, compared with the cost of two years in college, said Micozzi, who used Bridgewater State College for comparison. There, a year’s tuition ($910), fees ($5,563), and room and board ($8,116) comes to $14,589, or $29,178 for two years.

Micozzi said the fees to be charged in Randolph have not been finalized, and waivers are possible for students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. “The School Committee wants to ensure that no child is denied because of financial needs,’’ he said.

To be eligible for the college academy, students must meet certain requirements, such as scoring as proficient or above on the MCAS tests, take the Accuplacer Exam (an online assessment and placement tool used by colleges), maintain at least a 3.00 grade point average, and miss no more than nine school days.

This year’s freshman class would be the first group of students eligible to participate in the academy, and the first classes are scheduled to start in the 2011-2012 school year.

The program was conceived by Micozzi in 2008, when he was teaching in Plymouth. The idea was shelved when he retired, then resurrected when he was hired by Randolph on a part-time basis. Last year, he took his concept to Superintendent Richard Silverman and, Micozzi said, “the superintendent and the whole administrative team were very open to the idea.’’

The next step was approaching area colleges. Kathleen Kirby, executive director of CONNECT — a consortium of the six institutions of public higher education in Southeastern Massachusetts, namely Bridgewater State College, Bristol, Cape Cod, and Massasoit community colleges, Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth — helped Randolph form the partnerships.

“CONNECT has an interest in supporting innovative educational initiatives, like this one, that are geared toward increasing access to higher education,’’ said Kirby. “Clearly, earning college credits before leaving high school will reduce the time to a degree, and therefore reduce the cost of a college education. Also, these kinds of early college programs have been shown to have particular effectiveness for first-generation, lower-income students, and significantly increase their likelihood of going to college.’’

Kirby said the group also helped put Randolph administrators in touch with other organizations in the state working on similar initiatives, such as Jobs for the Future, the state Department of Higher Education, and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, so that they could learn what other kinds of programs are underway, and what’s been discovered to make early college programs a success.

Peter Johnston, dean of academic advising and assessment at Massasoit Community College, said he believes the Randolph program is a tremendous opportunity for young people in the town and aligns with its mission of providing high-quality, low-cost educational opportunities to area residents.

“Massasoit and Randolph faculty and staff will work together over the course of the next year to ensure that courses offered through the academy are legitimate Massasoit courses,’’ he said.

Funding for the program isn’t an issue, Micozzi said, because the money is already in place to pay for existing staff and facilities in Randolph. “That’s the beauty of the whole package, that the lion’s share of what has to happen to make this occur is already within the budget,’’ he said. “It’s just identifying that our AP programs are working at the level of earning community college credits.’’

Randolph must now compare its curriculum with Massasoit’s. “We have 24 courses identified, and we may have to develop several courses to dovetail with Massasoit,’’ said Micozzi, emphasizing that the program will not require colleges to change anything. “We are adapting our work up to their standards.’’

Other officials anticipate a number of benefits from instituting the college academy, including increasing the number of students taking AP classes and increasing the percentage of students earning college degrees. School officials also hope to retain and attract students who otherwise would have left the school district for private or parochial schools.

Conard said all students could benefit, regardless of whether they graduate with an associate’s degree. By taking the more rigorous courses, “they may earn a few college credits and be ahead of the game when they do attend college,’’ he said.

Details about the college academy are being ironed out, officials said, after which presentations will be made to the community about the program. Micozzi said the early community reaction has been positive.

“Parents are extremely excited, because this can make college a reality for some people who haven’t dreamed of it before because of cost,’’ he said.

Wendy Chow can be reached at wchow@globe.com.

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