Keane Kumashiro’s 14-year-old son, Bryson, is an incoming freshman at Castle High School in Kaneohe on Oahu’s Windward side. Before the teen starts high school in a few days, he’ll already have kickstarted his post-secondary education.
That’s because the student took a three-credit, college-level Hawaiian Studies course on Polynesian voyaging over the summer as part of Castle High’s Early College partnership with Windward Community College.
The cost? Zero.
“As a family, we talk a lot about the value of a college education,” Kumashiro told Civil Beat. “The Early College program is probably the best thing Castle has to offer. To have this program where (my son) can take free college courses, that to me, was a no-brainer.”
All across the state, high schoolers — or those on the cusp — are getting a jump start on their college careers by enrolling in Early College, an initiative that began in 2012 at Waipahu High and has since spread to most of Hawaii’s 46 public high schools and some charters.
It enables eligible students from as early as ninth grade to earn both high school and college credit by taking college courses on their high school campus. The classes are taught by college instructors from a neighboring college.
Classes are tuition-free and serve as a springboard for college-bound students who can apply those credits toward an eventual associate or bachelor’s degree. It’s also seen by proponents as expanding access for low-income kids from underserved communities who may not have viewed college as an option.
“We’re not just focusing on the top 5, 10 percent (of students), we’re focusing on all learners,” said Daniel Hamada, principal of Kapaa High School on Kauai, where almost half the student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch. More than a quarter of college-bound students in last year’s graduating class were the first in their families to go to college.
Early College also provides a more convenient avenue for high school students to access college courses.
“The only difference between me teaching History 151 (at KCC) and at Kalani High is that I’m physically at Kalani,” said Julie Rancilio, a Kapiolani Community College professor. “Same class, same assignment, same everything. We’re just teaching at a different location.”
The onset of Early College in Hawaii began through private grants from foundations like McInerny Foundation and Harold K.L. Castle Foundation at select high schools. In recent years, funding from the Legislature, including $1.5 million this year, has expanded the program’s reach.
At some Hawaii schools, these classes are now part of the mainstream.
Take Waipahu High: six years ago, when Early College was first introduced, the school enrolled 30 students in a college-level psychology course through a partnership with UH West Oahu.
Last school year, the school had 400 students — one in every six students across all grade levels — enrolled in at least one Early College Course.
Waipahu High now offers 58 Early College courses through its collaborations with UH-West Oahu and Leeward Community College. This past May, the school graduated a dozen “Olympians,” as it calls them, who simultaneously earned both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.
“Now, the whole culture of this high school is very much college-oriented,” said Mark Silliman, Waipahu High’s Early College program director. “Teachers are saying, ‘Wow, I hear my students talking about college all the time. It never used to be like that.’”
Expanding Hawaii’s college-educated workforce is a priority for state leaders, who note that at least 70 percent of jobs here will require some post-secondary education by 2020.
In 2015, just 44 percent of Hawaii’s working-age adults (age 25 to 64) held a college degree from either a two- or four-year institution.
Hawaii’s P-20 Partnerships for Education, a collaboration between the Executive Office on Early Learning, Hawaii Department of Education and University of Hawaii system, is seeking to boost that number. Its “55 by ’25” campaign aims to have at least 55 percent of Hawaii’s adults equipped with a college degree by 2025.
Early College is the newest addition to a menu of dual credit options in Hawaii. Others include Running Start, where high school students travel to neighboring colleges to take college classes, and Jump Start, where high school seniors take college classes to fulfill CTE, or career and technical education, credit.
“One of the things we want to promote is educational attainment. But ideally, we’d like to do that to meet the needs of Hawaii’s economy,” said Stephen Schatz, P-20’s executive director.
It’s up to each school to define the contours of the program, including which grade levels should be eligible for what courses, and the degree to which high school counselors work with students to develop an academic plan.
As Early College evolves, Schatz said one continuing goal is to help high schools more actively engage with students to help them choose courses that align with their high school career academies and anticipated UH degree pathways.
While community college enrollment has declined since the 2010 recession, participation in dual credit has seen big gains in Hawaii. In 2012, 671 students, or 6 percent of high school graduates, participated. By 2017, 1,823 students, or 17 percent of all high school graduates, were enrolled.
The outreach is beginning early: Silliman visits with middle schoolers at Waipahu Intermediate to encourage them to consider Early College and helps eighth-graders with applications in the winter before their freshman year. He’s spoken to even younger kids about the virtues of the program.
“If given the chance — and I have — I speak to elementary school students,” he said.
A big question surrounding the impact of Early College is whether it will improve college retention: just 78 percent of UH Manoa freshman in 2016 persisted onto their second year. National research suggests post-secondary students who took college classes in high school continued on to their second year at a higher rate than those who did not.
The college-going rate among public school students in Hawaii has remained relatively flat over the last six years, at 55 percent.
The bar for college credit transfer is lower than for Advanced Placement: whereas only a score of 3 or higher confers college credit for AP, a grade of D or higher is considered passing in the UH system.
That taking an Early College course can elevate one’s GPA is a feature Waipahu High promotes on its Early College website, as well as other benefits like saving money on college, standing out in the crowd and experiencing a college-going culture in high school.
Jade Pham, a 2014 Kaimuki High graduate, accumulated 22 college credits by the time she graduated from high school. Because Early College wasn’t available at the school until her later years, she enrolled in Running Start, which allowed her to take classes at Kapiolani Community College during the school week.
Thanks to scholarships, Pham’s Running Start classes were free at KCC, where a three-credit course can cost $375.
Pham, who knew as a teen she wanted to major in the humanities or political science, took college classes like Intro to Politics, cultural anthropology, psychology and Pacific Island Studies. She often took The Bus from Kaimuki High to KCC’s Diamond Head campus and back in time for her high school schedule.
“I still wanted to get the high school experience, but also get ahead,” Pham said, adding she gained skills like how to study and be more organized.
A first-generation college student who came to Hawaii at age 2 after her parents fled Vietnam as refugees, Pham said she’s been self-motivated from a young age and always loved to learn.
After high school, she attended Corban University, a small private college in Salem, Oregon. She majored in political science and graduated a year early thanks to credits she accumulated at KCC while a high-schooler.
“It was nice to get that extra gap year from graduating early and thinking I could use it for internships,” Pham said.
“Instead, I chose to go straight to grad school,” she added with a laugh.
Today, the 21-year-old is entering her second year teaching special education at her alma mater, Kaimuki High, while working simultaneously toward her master’s degree in education at UH Manoa.
Dual credit has grown increasingly popular across the country. Across the U.S., 1.4 million high school students took a college class in 2010-11. Back in 2002-03, 55 percent of post-secondary institutions offered classes at high schools; by 2010, 64 percent of institutions offered them.
“The trend you’re seeing of bringing college to students is a trend we’re seeing around the country,” said Adam Lowe, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. “Hawaii is fairly recent in undergoing this expansion.”
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Ric Custudio, a medical doctor, led the final class of “Survey of Health Professions,” an Early College summer course offered at Waipahu High. His students, ranging from rising sophomores to seniors, presented their final projects.
“What we’re trying to do (with Early College), is open their eyes a little, that it’s possible, if you’re first generation or second generation, poor, that all this (different health careers) is possible,” Custudio said.
“What I believe is, exposure changes trajectory.”
Still, among the chorus of praise, including from Hawaii’s governor, some are questioning whether there is too much emphasis on the end goal of earning a college degree while still in high school.
In a recent op-ed in Civil Beat, Sheldon Tawata, UH Community College outreach faculty, pointed out that a high school student’s selection of college courses requires thoughtful conversations with counselors and advisors so as to align with their actual interests. Early College’s rapid growth here, he wrote, “seems to be a race for statistics rather than embracing the developmental process of our youth with a blatant oversight of the college process.”
“We can all agree that completing a college degree is a major milestone but it has to be done right, which is a very complicated process,” he wrote.
Early College, Tawata said in an interview, might not be the right path for every student, as there are other ways to “expose kids to college readiness without the college credit,” through things like college visits, presentations at the high schools — “all sorts of things without taxing the student.”
Kumashiro, the Castle High parent, said he recognized some of Early College’s limitations: for instance, the Hawaiian Studies course was the only Early College course available to his son this past summer.
But since Castle High offers no honors classes, he appreciates that Bryson, who is considering a career as a firefighter, will be able to move through high school with a like-minded cohort: Early College provides that kind of rigorous academic environment he otherwise wouldn’t receive.
“It’s comfortable to me because he’s … in a classroom (with other kids who are) intending to go to college,” he said. “Which means he’s being surrounded by like-minded classmates one period out of the day.”
At first Bryson didn’t want to enroll in Early College.
“Then we started talking about the money side of things,” Kumashiro said. “If he completes enough credits to eliminate one year of study at UH, it could save him about $15,000.”
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