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A groundbreaking program is giving many Amesbury High students a chance to improve their skills for higher education

Northern Essex Community College professor Xavier Pelaez (center) checks work by Amesbury High students Lyanh Harding-Lu and Troy Wise. Northern Essex Community College professor Xavier Pelaez (center) checks work by Amesbury High students Lyanh Harding-Lu and Troy Wise. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
By Karen Sackowitz
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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Amesbury High School sophomore Brian Beaulieu spends two hours a day in a class that challenges him more than any other.

“It’s much more work — note cards, weekly quizzes, journal entries and essays,” he says. “But the skills we learn help me with all my classes.”

Beaulieu is among a pioneer group of 31 sophomores who will already have one foot on the path to college, thanks to a new on-site program offered in partnership with Northern Essex Community College. Since September, the students in the Amesbury High School Early College Program have studied advanced-level history and English, infused with valuable learning skills. At the end of the school year, they will each have nine transferable college credits.

Beaulieu says that despite the increased workload, he would recommend the program.

“At first it may seem scary,” he says. “But it’s really helpful.”

Classes are co-taught by faculty members from both schools. This year’s team included NECC College Success professor Xavier Pelaez, NECC history professor Mary Sheehan, and Amesbury High English teacher Brett Twombly.

In one recent class, Pelaez began by explaining the importance of organizing that week’s study materials, reiterating that the key to college success is preparation. He then handed the class over to Sheehan, who began a lesson on the Underground Railroad.

It’s this team approach that helps enable students to simultaneously learn college-level material while preparing for the increased expectations they will face in two years.

“Even if children are bright, they oftentimes don’t really know how to study,’’ says Meryl Goldsmith, whose son Jona than participates in the program. “It can then be a shock when they get to college where it’s do or die, no excuses.’’

To ramp up to those demands, students in the program earn nine college credits their sophomore year, up to 12 their junior year, and up to 15 in their senior year. In all, participants have the potential to graduate from high school with up to 36 college credits, more if they enroll in summer courses.

Prior to its launch last September, the early college program was two years in the making. In early 2008, Sue Grolnic, NECC’s dean of humanities and social sciences, approached AHS principal Les Murray and AHS guidance director Mary Beth Exler about forming an early college partnership. The idea was enthusiastically received.

Grolnic then reached out to a former Harvard University classmate who was working for Jobs for the Future, an organization funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that promotes dual enrollment programs nationwide. That organization came on board, and the planning team expanded further to include Telena Imel, the Amesbury public schools curriculum director, Superintendent G. David Jack, former superintendent Charlie Chaurette, and Lane Glenn, NECC vice president of academic affairs.

The program isn’t cheap, involving at least two teachers per class, one a college professor, and students are charged a $600 annual tuition. Because of its costs, it was decided the program should not rely on state funding or grants. Instead, a grass-roots plan took shape, forging a collaboration between both schools, along with parents, teachers, and the community as a whole.

Overall, NECC is taking on the bulk of the cost this year, with the Amesbury public schools covering a smaller share. The Amesbury Educational Foundation Inc., a local independent nonprofit that supports innovative educational opportunities, is providing financial assistance for those parents who are unable to afford the program’s annual tuition.

In deciding which students would fit best into the early college model, it was theorized that while top-tier students benefit from advanced-placement curriculums, and struggling students receive specialized assistance, a program geared toward the students in the middle would have the greatest impact.

“We wanted to form an intentional program to get that core group of kids ready to move toward college,’’ says Grolnic.

In September, the class visited the college campus, and students were issued college IDs, which they can use to take advantage of the library, tutoring services, and online access to course materials.

The marriage between Amesbury High and NECC works to serve mutual big-picture goals. Like many other high schools, Amesbury was looking to strengthen college readiness. NECC was too, given that remedial classes — so often needed for less prepared freshman — take valuable time and funds away from the school and its students.

Jack Leonard, a researcher from UMass Boston who was commissioned by Jobs for the Future to document the planning and implementation of the new program, says it was the collaborative nature and grass-roots effort behind the plan that led Nancy Hoffman, vice president for youth transitions at Jobs for the Future, to call the Amesbury program a model for other Massachusetts communities.

Leonard’s first progress report, filed in March, showed success coming much sooner for the program than expected. Students were not only keeping up with the college-level work, but their grades in other subjects were improving as well.

“When I read that report, I couldn’t sleep I was so excited,’’ says Murray.

In addition to subject matter, students are learning academic independence.

“We have more responsibility,’’ says participant Mikey Zielinski. “In college, your teacher isn’t going to remind you at the end of every class that you have homework. You have a syllabus and need to follow it.’’

Last year, 12 parents attended the AHS early college inaugural information session. At this year’s meeting for the 2010-2011 school year, that number went to 50. All 31 students have chosen to remain in the program next year, and all 31 sets of parents are ready to write their next round of tuition checks.

“Now these kids know they can handle this at 15 or 16,’’ said Meryl Goldsmith. “Just imagine what they will achieve at 18, when they head off to college.’’

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