Chalk Talk: The debate around ‘early college’: The success of these programs hinges on cross-school collaboration

Joe Courchesne is an English teacher at Granby Jr./Sr. High School.

Joe Courchesne is an English teacher at Granby Jr./Sr. High School. CONTRIBUTED


For the Gazette

Published: 01-25-2024 11:06 AM

If you’ve been near a high school for any significant amount of time in the last 10 years, you’ve likely encountered the often abstract idea of “early college.” It’s certainly an important buzzword in education these days, but what is it exactly? Does early college mean dual enrollment classes? Targeted partnerships between colleges and high schools? College visits and exploration? A formal designation by the state? Tuition discounts? No one seems quite sure and every approach feels a little different.

What’s not in dispute is that “early college” is a significant player in the high school curriculum. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has attached real dollars and significant financial support to schools that implement approved early college programs, and while those programs don’t always take the same shape, they all have a unifying principle: a partnership between secondary and post-secondary institutions that allows high school students to earn college credit for little-to-no cost.

While the financial benefit for families is indisputable, the academic benefit for students continues to be a subject of debate: some laud the effort to challenge students, others claim we are expecting more than is developmentally appropriate. Advanced Placement classes, long a cornerstone of “advanced” high school curriculum, are nervous about continuing to be relevant. There’s legitimate concerns about faculty staffing and other labor issues.

While there’s merit to all these arguments, I believe early college programs have the potential to be positive game-changers for students if they’re implemented as true partnerships.

In 2017, I was fortunate enough to be ahead of the curve when I taught Composition 101 in one of the first officially designated early college programs in the state: Westfield State University’s “Westfield Promise.” The Westfield Promise structure was different from most early college programs in that it offered semester-long courses that were stretched over the entire school year and co-taught in a high school setting by both a high school teacher and a college professor. As early college structures go, this is a unique approach.

I also believe it’s the only approach that works.

When guiding teenagers through college level content, collaboration between the high school teacher and college professor is invaluable. High school teachers, in their whirlwind coffee-fueled days of five different groups of students, have to develop skills to survive a hectic setting. They become masters of efficiency: scaffolding instruction, multiple forms of on-the-spot assessing, managing conflicting and hormonal personalities, juggling the sometimes contrasting expectations of parents/administration/the larger community.

While college professors have to deal with much of that as well, they also are generally afforded more opportunities to focus on scholarship and their content area. Conducting research, publishing in academic journals, and presenting at conferences are far more common in the post-secondary world. It feels essential for a college instructor to be aware of the latest developments in their particular field — a high school teacher, often teaching the same introductory course year after year, has far less of an incentive.

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To be clear: there are high school teachers who are scholars in every aspect of their content and there are college professors who are masters of classroom management. There is obviously overlap in this oversimplification of these different roles, but I do believe the different environments in which we work leads to different but complementary skills.

In The Westfield Promise model, both myself and my co-teaching partner were able to leverage our own pedagogical approaches. In some ways, I became a student again while getting a refresher on  current theories and practices in writing instruction. But I was also vital in that classroom: I knew the students, I knew the context, I knew the community, and I had institutional credibility. We complimented each other and learned from each other. We certainly grew as professionals, but the true beneficiaries were the 16 juniors in front of us: they were challenged with college-level work while maintaining some level of comfort in their environment and feeling appropriately supported.

This experience made me a better teacher, too. I have applied many of the approaches from that course to my general education classes. Scaffolded for sure, but still pushing all students to think and write a bit deeper.

If early college is envisioned as a partnership between high school and post-secondary institutions, then let’s make it a true partnership. A partnership that not only exists between school and state administrators in suits who shake hands and pat themselves on the back for their innovative approach, but a partnership between the instructors in the trenches working directly with students. We do no favors to the high school teacher who is asked to teach a college syllabus of someone else’s design and we do equally little favor to the college professor asked to teach in a high school setting without appropriate institutional support. Most of all, we do no favors to the students enrolling in these early college programs.

If we see early college as a “bridge” between the secondary and post-secondary world for students, the people charged with teaching those students need more time to work together. Increased collaboration and co-teaching between secondary teachers and high school professors will benefit everyone involved, and the co-teaching model should be the standard for early college programs moving forward.

Joe Courchesne is a member of the Western Mass Writing Project and an English teacher at Granby Jr/Sr High School in Granby.