When Rylee Butler goes to college next year, she’ll enter her freshman year ahead of schedule.
The Bald Eagle Area High School senior is taking English 15 — a composition-intensive class —at Penn State while balancing high school classes, working and participating in extracurricular activities.
But with discipline, and family and school support, she works it all into her schedule.
Butler, 17, is one of many students from the five Centre County school districts doing the same thing as part of dual-enrollment programs, which offer high school students the chance to take college-level classes through a university that is partnered with the school district, at a reduced cost.
The Bellefonte Area School District does not have a dual-enrollment program, but is starting a similar initiative that takes the concept a step further.
Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger said the district has partnered with Harrisburg Area Community College to offer students the chance to earn an associate’s degree upon high school graduation — at a reduced rate.
While school administration at Bald Eagle, Bellefonte and Penns Valley school districts said there is an upward trend of students taking college courses while still in high school, officials from colleges that offer two-year degree programs say they don’t feel slighted when it comes to admission numbers each year.
Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the university’s two-year program isn’t threatened by the increasing trend of high school students completing associate’s degrees while in high school.
“Some years ago the campuses started to allow high school students to enroll in college courses at a tuition rate that was effectively half the normal rate,” Powers said. “This dual-enrollment program typically had students taking general education courses that would eventually apply toward their baccalaureate degree.”
Penn State’s efforts to provide opportunities for high school students to earn college credits has not been tailored to associate degree completion. It has been targeted to provide high school students the opportunity to take college courses at local campuses as a way to expose them to campus opportunities other than University Park, Powers said.
“At one point, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania provided school districts grants that allowed high school students an additional discount on tuition, but those arrangements were discontinued by the state,” Powers said. “As such we still have dual-enrolled high school students across our campuses, but the numbers have declined from their previous high-water mark.”
Bellefonte’s partnership with HACC is in the beginning stages, but is expected to be finalized by the start of the 2015-16 school year, Potteiger said.
“I think with education constantly changing and with everything that’s going on, our hope is to provide high school students more opportunities and be able to work with a college curriculum where they can earn an associate’s degree,” Potteiger said. “Our goal in the future is to help students complete (high school) academics and obtain an associate’s degree as a nice way for them to start college.”
Potteiger said the program provides three benefits to students: getting a jump-start on college, transitioning to a four-year college more smoothly, and helping families financially when paying for college because classes are offered at a reduced cost.
Teachers within the districts would be trained adjunct teachers through HACC, who would teach classes in specific content areas, Potteiger said.
Meetings are scheduled with the district, the community college and the teacher’s union to discuss ways to move forward with the program and create a curriculum.
Earlier this year, the district reached out to Penn Highlands Community College, which declined to help because it already is in partnership with too many other schools to take on Bellefonte, Potteiger said.
That’s when the district looked elsewhere.
By the summer, Potteiger said, the district hopes to provide information about the associate’s degree program to parents and students and roll it out slowly next school year.
For at least eight years, the district also has offered Advanced Placement courses that allow eligible students to have classes transferred to colleges based on AP test scores.
In the past three years, Bellefonte has increased its AP program from eight classes to 22, Potteiger said.
Butler is no stranger to AP classes, which, she said, prepared her for a college course load this year while finishing high school credits.
Now, the single class she takes at Penn State — and a college math class she plans to take next semester — is preparing her for college full time next year.
“I know a little bit about what to expect,” Butler said. “I’m familiarizing myself with that level of work and what comes with it.”
Butler goes to Penn State Tuesday and Thursday mornings for the English class, then makes her way to Bald Eagle Area High School afterward from about noon to the end of the school day. After school, she heads to work with her father. She also plays soccer and runs track.
Last year, Butler consulted a guidance counselor to get information about taking college classes her senior year. She filled out an undergraduate degree application, submitted it to Penn State, and got the go-ahead to start her higher education.
Butler is considered a nondegree undergraduate.
“It’s a little intimidating, but I don’t often tell people I’m in high school,” Butler said. “For now, this is the perfect fit. There are about 25 students in the class, so it’s small enough to learn easily but large enough to have interaction with a lot of other college students.”
She suggests her peers to do the same thing, as long as they can manage a daily schedule.
“I recommend taking one class in person at the college to get that experience, and it will help (with) the college transition a lot I think,” Butler said. “If it doesn’t work out, there is a deadline to drop the class. But at least you’re exposed to what college classes will be like in the future and you can decide if it’s the right fit.”
Butler hopes to attend either Penn State or Penn Tech next fall to study mechanical engineering.
The Bald Eagle Area School District has partnered with colleges for at least 20 years, offering some type of incentive for students who want to take college classes.
The district was previously partnered with Lock Haven University until the funding changed, she said.
“It’s a great opportunity to experience and earn college credit,” Morse said.
This year, students — sophomores, juniors and seniors — are enrolled in the dual-enrollment program at the high school. Each student averages one college-level course a semester, Morse said.
Last year, the district had nine students who took college courses. So far this year, there are two students enrolled in the dual-enrollment program, but that could increase next semester, Morse said.
BEA requires students interested in taking college courses to have at least a 3.0 grade point average, submit qualifying PSAT, SAT and/or state test scores, fill out an application and get signatures from a parent or guardian and a school administrator.
“Our students are successful,” Morse said. ... “We had a couple students who completed their freshman year of college the same time as their senior year in high school.”
Like the other districts in the county, Bald Eagle offers Advanced Placement classes that can earn a student college credit, but it’s not always successful.
Morse said the student must have an AP test score of three or higher — with five being the highest possible score — and it’s up to the individual college or university whether to accept the AP course as credit.
“It comes down to the test, even if you have already passed the class,” Morse said. “It doesn’t always work.”
For the Penns Valley Area School District’s dual-enrollment program, it partners with Penn State and Clarion University and offers reduced tuition for district students while taking college credit in high school, school counselor Bill Bock said.
As part of the department’s larger Education Improvement Initiative Series, the PDE administered Project 720 — named for the number of days in four years of high school — a three-year, $4.7 million voluntary state grant program for schools that were “student-centered, results-focused, data-informed and personalized in the delivery of services to students,” according to a report from the PDE.
In the 2005-06 school year, the state awarded 67 grants ranging from $40,000 to $168,000 to help high schools build smaller learning communities, improve student counseling services, implement adolescent literacy programs, personalize the high school experience and raise academic standards.
District business manager Jef Wall said the dual-enrollment program is run by a teacher who holds adjunct professor status at the University of Pittsburgh, therefore “there are no additional costs associated with the program,” even though funding through the state ran out.
Bock said it’s a good incentive for students who want to be on the “fast track” and better prepare themselves for college later on.
“We’re a small school in Centre County, but have a healthy number of students who participate in dual enrollment,” Bock said. “It’s a little bit like a college tryout. Students get a taste of what college is like without being overwhelmed.”
Penns Valley requires its juniors and seniors interested in taking college classes to at least have a 3.0 GPA, with the consent from their parent or guardian and school administration.
Last year and this year saw about a dozen students enrolled in the program, each averaging one college class per semester, Bock said.
In its history, a few students have dropped out of the program, Bock said. But he finds it’s successful because of the support from the students, parents and school district.
About five students in nine years also have concurrently completed their senior year in high school and freshman year in college, Bock said.
The district has conversations with the colleges each spring to find ways to enhance the program.
Bock said administrators discuss the pros and cons, catering to students’ needs even if that means opening the doors to other colleges outside of the district’s network if students want to obtain credit elsewhere.
The State College Area School District does not offer a dual-enrollment program, but the high school has several students who take classes at Penn State — without a tuition break, said Karen Wolanski, school counselor secretary.