WOU in the news: Local high schools students get jump start on college

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Some students worry they can’t afford college. Others think it will be too hard. Many aren’t sure if they’re really that interested in the classes.

The partnership between local high schools and Western Oregon University is designed to quell those doubts by giving students an introduction to college in a low-cost, familiar atmosphere.

Willamette Promise provides more than 56,000 Oregon high school students the chance to earn WOU credits before they’ve even graduated. The program is similar to the agreement between Oregon high schools and Portland Community College, which allows teenagers to earn PCC credits free of charge through classes at their high schools.

Instead of earning community college credit, however, students taking advantage of Willamette Promise are earning the typically more costly university credit. Forest Grove High School students can earn credits in biology, math, Spanish, psychology, English, career and technical education and more.

Teachers from Forest Grove, Gaston and Banks high schools work with WOU faculty to make sure they’re teaching college-level material and grading by university standards. Sometimes, that means staff members teach a strictly college-level class to all students in the room. Other times, they’re providing additional, more rigorous coursework met with respective grading to certain students who are signed up to earn the college credits.

Funds come out of the Forest Grove School District budget to pay for teachers to coordinate with professors. In addition, students pay $35 per school year to take as many college-level classes as they choose.

‘Less of a burden’

FGHS junior Briana Larios plans to transfer the biology and chemistry credits she’s earned through Willamette Promise toward a four-year mechanical engineering degree.

“Knowing you can get a lot of credit here in high school for a lot cheaper” puts her mind at ease, she said, both in terms of finances and the workload she’ll have to take on in college. “It will be less of a burden knowing I won’t have to take those classes again.”

One of the largest advantages is the cost savings for students, said FGHS Principal Karen O’Neill. Many enter college with enough credits to shave as much as a half a year off a typical four-year bachelor’s degree, according to O’Neill. Cutting one year of tuition out of their total college bill could push some students on the fence about finances over the edge toward affordability.

“With the rising cost of college tuition, this is important for a lot of our students to receive some financial relief when possible,” said Banks School District Superintendent Jeff Leo.

Banks students earned 168 credits through Willamette Promise during the 2016-17 school year. FGHS students earned 1,011 credits last school year, more than any other high school in the program’s district, which runs the length of the Willamette Valley from Jefferson to Jewell. At a cost of $205 per credit, that’s a total potential college savings of $207,255 for Forest Grove students alone.

“I think there’s a perception that many high school students can’t do college work, but they can,” said FGHS Principal Karen O’Neill.

“It shows them college really isn’t that different than high school,” said FGHS science teacher Morey Miller. “It gives them the skills they need to move forward.”

Any student can sign up for the classes, O’Neill said, and allowing students to try out college-level work often reveals their capability.

“It helps kids understand college is within their reach,” she said. “They can handle the rigor and it’s encouraging.”

Leo has noticed that encouragement in his students as well.

“There are some students who are already planning on going to college, but some students are not sure,” he said. “Giving them opportunities for college credit in high school gives them that boost, that incentive to attend college or enter into a tech school that will lead to a career.”

After researching the education it requires to become a lawyer, FGHS sophomore Daniel Bair decided he better get a head start. He’s earned Spanish and chemistry credits through the program, but he was nervous at first, because the classes were so much harder.

“But now I feel more confident,” he said.

FGHS administrators are working this year to raise more awareness among students about the kinds of courses offered and what students may be able to do with them after high school. For example, English and Spanish classes can be transferred toward a typical four-year degree, while CTE classes can be transferred to a technical school certificate program, such as computer application systems or building construction technology, among many others.

Oregon’s Measure 98, which provides funding to schools for dropout prevention and increased college and career readiness opportunities, will allow FGHS to offer even more CTE courses, O’Neill said.

This year, FGHS students can take a mechatronics course, which introduces students to the fields of mechanical, electrical and computer engineering.

Banks High students also have the chance to earn dual credit in agricultural technology, fire science, basic horticulture, welding and animal science through the district’s partnership with PCC and Linn-Benton Community College.

Students not only have the chance to earn credits but also try out a sampling of subjects, which may help them choose what they’re interested in and possibly influence their college choice. O’Neill said FGHS staff want to introduce students to high-wage, high-demand jobs, along with careers typically prompted by bachelor’s degrees.

“We want to produce the best-skilled kids possible,” O’Neill said. “They need to exit high school with a lot more skills than they used to. It’s a much more demanding environment in terms of jobs and careers.”