When Chanaya Meeks started high school four years ago, she was not a top student. She was just there because she had to be.
“I just thought honestly I would end up working at a McDonald’s or something because I really didn’t care about school and nobody really talked about school with me,” Chanaya said.
But her high school, Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, was new, and it had a special focus: It was an “early college” school, meaning its goal was to not just get students a diploma but also an associate degree.
Chanaya said the message was everywhere. And she tried it, finding herself in a college math class as a sophomore offered through City Colleges of Chicago, the city’s community college system, right at Goode.
“They have posters all over school,” she said. “The No. 1 push is college, so of course taking early college credits will be their main focus.”
In Chicago, the proliferation of college classes in high schools is new. Since 2014, the number of students taking classes through City Colleges at their high school has tripled, from 1,055 in 2013-2014 to 3,655 in 2017-2018. And Chicago Public Schools data released last week shows almost 15% of 2019 graduates had earned at least one college credit through a class at their high school, up from about 5% in 2014.
When students take college classes in high school, research shows they are more likely to go to college and complete it.
But as early college has grown in Chicago, some City Colleges faculty and college admissions officers worry that these classes — most taught by high school teachers with master’s degrees — are watered-down and give lower-performing students the false impression they are ready for college-level work. A third of the classes don’t have any requirements to get in. For the others, students must prove they meet the college-ready standard set by City Colleges, which is low.
Still, Chanaya reacted exactly the way former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and school district leaders wanted when they started pushing these classes. She started to think of herself as college material. So did her family.
“They saw new doors that could open up for me,” she said. “That pushed me to do better and drove me to want to go to school.”
“ I want every child to be in it”
Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, and school district leaders continue to embrace the idea that high school students should aim for college credits before they graduate. The new Englewood STEM High School that opened last week is designated an early college school.
As she rang the school bell on the first day, Lightfoot told the students the school was giving them “all an edge on getting into college and a leg up on your career.”
The school district has a five-year goal of getting 60% of students some postsecondary credentials before graduating. College credits can be earned through Advanced Placement courses or by taking college classes either on a college campus (dual enrollment) or at their high school (dual credit).
After a big push in Chicago over the past two decades, more students than ever before are taking Advanced Placement classes. To earn college credit, students must earn a 3 or higher out of 5 on a final test by the AP company. But at 93 of 175 high schools in Chicago, less than 5% of graduates scored high enough to earn college credit through AP, 2019 data shows.
Taking college courses at their school or a nearby college gives more students the chance to earn credit. It also opens the door for all students, including lower-performing ones, to try a college-level curriculum.
‘I want every child to be in it,” said Charles Anderson, principal of Michele Clark High School on Chicago’s West Side. “It was another opportunity to give our kids college exposure prior to them getting there. One of the things we have seen is that kids will leave and it is too much, and they haven’t been prepared for it or maybe they didn’t understand something. The No. 2 reason is this was a great opportunity to help families save money, especially with the higher cost of higher education.”
According to data from City Colleges, students who have enrolled in dual credit classes have an average English SAT score of 515 and average Math SAT score of 511. Both exams are out of 800. This is above average for CPS and the state.
Doug Maclin, principal at Chicago Vocational Career Academy on the South Side, said these classes help him make the case to his students that college is for them. Many come from poor families and are more interested in working after high school than going to college.
He says to them: “Let's go there with some college credit through dual enrollment and dual credit classes, and let's graduate in three years versus graduating in four years so we can get you to work sooner.’”
Michael Deuser, chief of college and career success at Chicago Public Schools, said a goal is to determine areas of job and wage growth and then put college classes in those areas at high schools.
High schools and community colleges also benefit from offering these courses. Schools are graded based on how many students earn college credit while in high school. Plus, community colleges in Illinois can collect state funding for high school students taking classes through them. As City Colleges continues to face declining enrollment and there are fewer college-aged students overall, offering these courses to high school students helps minimize those declines.
Przemyslaw Kania, a teacher at Clark, said he sees high school-based college classes as a "win-win" for students and leaders. Principals can use the courses as a recruiting tool for students. City Colleges gets the extra enrollment, yet it doesn’t cost it or the school district any extra money. And it looks great having students graduate with a college credit.
Kania teaches college Spanish 101, which also counts as high school Spanish 1 — which means a language requirement is fulfilled on both fronts.There is no prerequisite for the class, but he tries to keep it small and only takes students who show they are serious through attendance, grades, interest and teacher recommendations.
But Kania does wonder how university admission counselors weigh these credits.
“I think you are going to have a lot of variety because dual credit is being done differently in different schools,” he said. “ A student might pass with a C [or] a student might pass with an A. Either way, we have to check 101 off the list.”
Kania said he doesn’t think all colleges would be comfortable putting students who passed 101 in high school into sophomore Spanish.
“We don’t want our degrees to become junk”
Research shows these early college classes help students get into and graduate from college. This includes a forthcoming study from the American Institutes for Research that says students who take these classes are more likely to get bachelor’s degrees, according to Kristina Zeiser, a senior researcher at AIR.
But she said nearly all the studies, including hers, looked at above-average performers who proved themselves college ready through a relatively high standard. She’s aware of one study that looked at the effects on low performers. It found the benefits didn’t hold.
Also, a 2015 study of Illinois students found the benefits were diminished for low-income students and students of color.
In Chicago Public Schools, there is a divide between college classes at highly-rated schools and lower ones. Selective enrollment test-in high schools offer more AP classes than neighborhood schools. Some CPS test-in high schools partner with Loyola University Chicago for their dual credit programs. Loyola has a higher GPA requirement to enroll than the program at City Colleges. Few students at those schools take classes through City Colleges.
And this year, City Colleges lowered its bar to be considered “college ready.” Currently, students need to have a 2.5 GPA and either pass a placement test or get a 480 out of 800 on either their English or Math SAT — down from the previous requirement of 540 out of 800. City Colleges said they did this to align with standards of the College Board, which administers the SAT.
Yet students at many high schools have trouble meeting these standards, which is why many offer classes without any prerequisites. Since 2014, more than a third of dual credit enrollments at City Colleges have been in courses that don’t require students to be “college ready.”
Deuser defends Chicago Public Schools push to get all students, regardless of performance level, into these classes. He said CPS data shows more than 90% of students pass the classes. To him, this is evidence that students are academically prepared for the work.
Steve Paglia, who works at North Lawndale College Prep’s Collins campus, teaches one of those non-prerequisite classes. Paglia has worked as a wildlife biologist and has taught at the college level.
He likes that his students have the entire semester to prove themselves in his medical terminology class instead of an AP class, where a big end-of-the year test determines if students get credit.
“The kids can be doing well and have a bad day and not pass the test and get no credit,” Paglia said.
But he admitted there are distinct differences between what he does for his high school students versus his college students.
For the high schoolers, “I held tutoring sessions. I had them come in for lunch. I had them come after [school],” Paglia said. “Some of me is like, ‘They wouldn't get this in college. A professor would say, ‘I have office hours, and if you don't sign up, you're not coming.’”
Paglia said his administration reminds him this is high school, and he doesn’t begrudge helping his students succeed.
But that extra hand-holding concerns somes community college professors who are skeptical the courses taught at the high school always mirror what’s taught on college campuses.
“What we’ve been finding is often high schools are using [dual credit] as a catchall course,” said Keith Sprewer, an English professor at Truman College. “So if a student couldn’t get into an AP or IB program or honors program, ‘Well then, there’s dual credit.’”
Many faculty at City Colleges also have concerns over the rapid expansion of these classes in Chicago Public Schools.
In a Teachers Union Local 1600 fact sheet published last spring, college union leaders raised questions about the number of Chicago Public Schools graduates who enter City Colleges without the skills to do college-level work.
“The problem is making sure high school students are prepared for college when they graduate, not that high school students need more opportunities to take college courses before they complete high school,” the fact sheet reads. They argue that using SAT scores and GPA doesn’t always show if a student has deficits, especially in writing.
Sprewer is concerned that City Colleges’ reputation will be damaged by students who don’t have the skills to do college-level work but get college credit anyway.
“We don’t want it to get to a point where our degrees become junk because people say they got credit from this place and we know that’s not up to par,” he said. “We want to make sure there’s value to what we do.”
Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges say community college department chairs regularly review course syllabi, pair teachers with a mentor and visit classrooms. Deuser notes Chicago Public Schools teachers must have master’s degrees, and the degree must be either in the subject they are teaching or they need 18 credit hours in that subject.
“We feel like we have several layers of oversight and safeguarding to ensure that these courses are of high rigor and of equivalent rigor to the classes that take place on college campuses,” Deuser said.
Paglia, for example, said he’s never reduced the academic level of his course when students struggle.
Come to the campus
Students say the experience of taking college credits was eye-opening and made them think differently about their future. But they also raise some questions: Would it be better for students to take college classes on college campuses so they get true exposure? Are students limiting where they go to college based on which universities take these credits?
Clark High School senior Iviana Jones took an African American studies class her sophomore year at Malcolm X College, which is part of the City Colleges. She said she felt like a “little kid” when she went to campus.
“Professors were like, ‘If you do it, you do it. If you don't, you don't. This is your grade — it has nothing to do with me. My job is to teach you,’” Jones said. “I think that is a good experience for other students.”
When she took dual credit back at Clark, in some ways, it felt like just another high school class. While the expectations were higher, the teachers went slower and gave students lots of support.
Now, Jones is a senior and thinking about college. She doesn’t know where she’ll apply yet, but she has one rule: She won’t apply to schools that won’t take her credits. “It would be like I did all this for nothing,” she said.
Arun Ponnusamy, a college admissions expert with the group Collegewise, said this highlights a problem. Students often take dual credit classes without knowing or considering whether the college they want to attend will accept them. “There’s not necessarily advising at all these schools to tell them which courses to take, and a lot of kids just take them kind of willy-nilly,” he said.
When they head to college, he said sometimes they discover the courses don’t end up saving them time or money.
That’s just one of the issues Chanaya Meeks faced.
After passing two college-level math classes at her high school, she took statistics at a community college. She struggled and ended up with a D on her college transcript. Then, as she started thinking about college, she was told by advisors that a lot of her credits might not transfer to schools she was interested in, especially out of state.
“It eliminated a lot of schools for me because a lot of them did not take the credits,” she said, including schools in Michigan, historically black colleges and universities and even some local private schools.
While there is an agreement among public universities in Illinois that they will take most credits, it’s less likely a school outside Illinois will take them. More selective schools are also reluctant to accept them.
Chanaya plans to take a few more community college classes at Harold Washington College this fall before transferring to Purdue University Fort Wayne next year.
Despite these setbacks, Chanaya said she is especially grateful she went to the community college campus and took classes. She said it gives her confidence.
“I had been through it before … I’ve been in the classroom,” she said. “I know how it goes.”