Fall River high school students sing Early College program’s praises
Baker says he’d like to have the program in every Mass. school
CARLOS MARCANO STARTED taking classes at Bristol Community College last year while still a junior in high school. Now a senior at Durfee High School in Fall River, Marcano is taking courses at Bridgewater State University, where he’s already been accepted – with a full scholarship – and will study full-time next year after finishing high school. What’s more he’ll arrive with a semester-worth of credits already under his belt as he pursues a marketing degree.
His was one of the success stories Gov. Charlie Baker heard on Monday at a roundtable discussion with students at Durfee High School who are enrolled in its Early College program. The state’s Early College initiative, which currently enrolls about 5,400 students at 50 high schools, allows students to get acclimated to the rigor of college work by taking higher ed classes while still in high school, accumulating credits toward a degree at no cost in the process.
“It’s nothing but success,” said Marcano, effusive in his praise for the program.
“You’re singing our song here,” said Baker, whose administration has been pushing hard for expansion of Early College funding. “This is a song we’ve been singing for the last five years about Early College, which is gradually developing a greater sense of possibility across state government. If it were up to me, this thing would be available at every school in Massachusetts.”
The expansion push comes on the heels of research showing that Early College programming can be particularly effective among students from lower-income households and homes where they might be the first generation to attend college.
Research released last year by MassINC, the nonpartisan think tank that publishes CommonWealth, showed that Early College was paying dividends for the early cohorts of high school graduates in Massachusetts who took part in the initiative. The Early College attendees were 38 percent more likely than their peers to enroll in college immediately after high school graduation and were 53 percent more likely to still be enrolled a year later. Research has shown that every dollar in Early College funding returns $15 in benefits, in the form of higher lifetime earnings and well-being.
“Early College has been a game-changer for Fall River and for our scholars,” Maria Pontes, the district’s superintendent, told Baker.
Just 42 percent of Fall River 2019-2020 high school graduates were enrolled in college or university, according to the most recent state education department data. Durfee High is completing its second year of Early College programming, with 135 juniors and seniors enrolled in higher ed courses. Next year, the school expects to have 275 students enrolled in Early College.
Andrew Woodward, the guidance director for the Fall River schools, said it’s still early in the district’s experience with the program, but he said there are encouraging signs pointing to “early success.” Completing the federal student financial application, or FAFSA, “is a good early indicator of student enrollment” in college after high school, Woodward said. He said 78 percent of Fall River seniors in the Early College program have completed the FAFSA. The statewide rate is 57 percent.
“I’ve always loved history, and my first class I took was history, and it didn’t go so well. It was so boring,” said Aiyana Ellis, a Durfee High junior. “And now I’m in Health 101, and it’s amazing. I’ve always wanted to be a nurse, and now it’s like definite.”
The Early College initiative at Durfee is being run in conjunction with OneGoal, a national nonprofit that provides programming designed to help students from low-income backgrounds complete college degrees. On days the Durfee students aren’t taking college courses through Bristol Community College or Bridgewater State, they meet in OneGoal seminars where instructors focus on things like understanding a college course syllabus, note-taking, and planning for college applications and pursuit of scholarships.
Several students cited the added support given in the Early College program as a key difference between it and AP courses, through which high school students can also earn college credits.
Malachia Nobre, a junior who recently transferred to Fall River from New Bedford High School, said she has a friend at New Bedford High who is taking several AP courses but gets no outside help with the demanding curriculum. “It’s just very rigorous but without the support,” she said. Nobre said the Early College program at Durfee has been “amazing because I have wonderful teachers who help you with that and get you on the right path.” (New Bedford High School is one of eight high schools recently approved to launch Early College as part of the state expansion of the program.)
Woodward, the Fall River guidance director, called Early College “the great equalizer” that can make a big difference for students without parents who attended college as well as for Black and Hispanic students, English language learners, and others whose college-going rates are not as great as that of their peers. The program has students doing the work of a typical college freshman, “but doing it with a bubble of support around them,” he said.Marcano, the Durfee senior, spoke proudly at Monday’s roundtable of his full ride to Bridgewater State, but he said he had doubts at times about whether he was up for the demands of the Early College program.
“At the start of this semester, I had a conversation where I even wanted to get out of the program,” he said, recounting a meeting with Emma Santoro, the Early College advisor at Durfee. “But she convinced me to stay and persevere, and so now I’m here and I’m meeting with you guys, and, honestly, it’s a great thing,” Marcano said to Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Education Secretary Jim Peyser, who joined him at the session. “If you fall behind or if you get a flat tire, you’ll catch up and you’ll cross the finish line because of your support. You got people with you.”