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More costly dual enrollment: Less of a draw? / August 03, 2017

Area school divisions are casting a wary eye towards proposed changes in the cost-sharing arrangement with Virginia community colleges that provide college-level courses in the high school setting.

Although the discussions are fluid, a changing financial relationship between community colleges and K-12 school divisions has some superintendents in the area pondering alternatives to community college dual enrollment and career and technical education (CTE) courses.

In neighboring Mecklenburg County, Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols — who formerly served as an assistant school superintendent in Halifax County — believes the cost-sharing changes could spell the end of that county’s high school dual enrollment program.

While Mecklenburg would not yank dual enrollment away from rising 11th and 12th grade students who are working towards their two-year community college Associate’s degrees, “I am not comfortable with giving hope to ninth, tenth, or rising eighth graders that this program will be offered to them,” Nichols said.

Halifax County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Lineburg said he has not had a chance this early in his new tenure to study the proposed changes. But he acknowledged that any move by the state to pass on community college expenses to local school divisions “could cause the beginning of a shift where dual enrollment isn’t quite the draw it has been.

“I think it’s too early to say,” Lineburg added. “Dual enrollment has meant so much to so many people here who have seen it as a vehicle to pay for a college education. I think dual enrollment is here to stay in Halifax County.”

But whereas Halifax in the past has been able to offer dual enrollment and community college CTE courses for essentially no extra cost to the budget — or to the students and families who benefit from the programs — that could change in the future if the school division is required to shell out cash.

A state higher education task force is recommending that community colleges charge more for providing college-level courses and industry-certified job training at the high school level. If adopted, the changes could upset the financial balance that allows divisions such as Halifax to avoid direct outlays for dual enrollment.

Through Southside Virginia Community College, Halifax County offers community college-level classes at HCHS that are taught by local teachers, working under the supervision of the college system. In exchange for providing the teaching labor and facilities, SVCC writes off the cost of dual enrollment tuition to Halifax County Public Schools.

A state directive adopted in 2015 requires community colleges to reimburse local school divisions for up to 60 percent of dual enrollment tuition whenever courses are taught by qualified school division faculty members. Individual community colleges can increase the tuition reimbursement up to 100 percent, but that may no longer be the case under the proposed changes.

According to Dr. Alfred “Al” Roberts, president of Southside Virginia Community College, a task force examining the issue has determined that some dual enrollment expenses fall disproportionately on the community colleges system. These costs — tied to registration, placement testing, and program management, among other things — should be borne to a greater extent by local high schools, the task force has suggested.

Dr. Roberts acknowledged receiving pushback on potential cost increases in conversations he has held with area school superintendents. Roberts said a majority of superintendents have told him that even a 10 percent fluctuation in costs would be significant, and school divisions might be forced to pass on the added expense to parents or discontinue programs entirely.

Students who would be hurt most tend to come from low-income families, Roberts noted, adding that it is contrary to the mission of Virginia community colleges to limit access to higher education.

Mecklenburg County’s situation is exacerbated by plans to build a new, $100 million high school-middle school complex to replace outdated facilities in the western and eastern ends of the county, plus renovating its four elementary schools.

“With all the financial issues we have, we won’t be able to pay for dual enrollment for our students,” said Nichols. “Right now, it’s a wash [with dual enrollment tuition reimbursed by SVCC] but if that changes, then we could have a problem.”

Community college coursework in high school has proven to be a popular option among Southside Virginia high school students: in Mecklenburg County, 437 members of the most recent graduating class took dual enrollment classes offered through SVCC.

At Halifax County High School, nearly one-half of the student body — 850 students on average — took dual enrollment courses in the most recent school year.

It’s not only the possibility that dual enrollment could become more expensive that worries area school superintendents. Lineburg noted that it’s becoming more difficult to find teachers who are qualified to teach the dual enrollment courses.

Teachers must meet the qualifications set by the Virginia Community College System, which requires that teachers hold a Master’s Degree and earn at least 18 credit hours in the content area they teach.

Administering dual enrollment is “challenging,” but Lineburg said that in his short time as Halifax school superintendent, he has seen the importance of the program for high school students and their families.

“We have been immersed in dual enrollment” in Halifax County, said Lineburg. “Any shift would affect us more than anyone.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere I’ve been where it’s [implemented] like it is here,” added Lineburg, who has been a school superintendent in Bristol and Winchester and an assistant superintendent or high school principal in several other localities.

Lineburg has said in recent months that he wants to add more Advanced Placement (AP) classes at HCHS, describing the College Board curriculum as “the most rigorous academic program that a student can go through in a public school setting.

“It’s a curriculum that has been vetted and nationally normed,” he said, with a better record of “fidelity” in teaching of the material. Dual enrollment courses can be academically rigorous, too, but Halifax must “make sure that every class we have [at HCHS] is meaningful and the rigor is in place for college preparation.

“I’m not slighting dual enrollment …. It’s been so good for so many people,” said Lineburg.

Before taking the job as Mecklenburg’s school superintendent, Nichols led Virginia Advanced Studies Strategies, a grant-funded initiative based in South Boston that spread the AP curriculum to low-income rural and urban school divisions around the state. “I have always been of the opinion that students get a higher level of rigor from AP than from dual enrollment,” said Nichols, who as assistant superintendent in Halifax worked with former school chief Paul Stapleton to build up the dual enrollment program at HCHS.

This fall, Mecklenburg County schools will begin offering AP classes for the first time on a limited basis. AP Statistics will be made available to seniors. English grammar and composition and U.S. History will transition from dual enrollment to AP classes. Nichols said he hopes to add AP Government and British Literature to the offerings at Bluestone and Park View High Schools.

Nichols acknowledges that even if MCPS moves away from the dual enrollment associates degree program, the school division will need to work with SVCC to continue to provide community college CTE programs. The school division lacks the finances and facilities to offer industry certification-level programs which can involve expensive equipment such as CNC and welding gear.

Building a skilled workforce is one of the most important issues facing the country, Dr. Roberts said, and for his part he continues to look at ways SVCC can fulfill that need. To the extent that community college courses fit with a high school CTE program, all the better, he added.

For instance, at its new Center for Information Technology Excellence, SVCC has created a training lab that replicates the work environment of large data centers such as Microsoft and Hewlett Packard. Starting this fall, the lab will offer both high school dual enrollment students and adult evening students the opportunity to train to work as IT technicians while earning both college credentials and industry credentials such as A+, Net+, Server +, and Security +.

With the opening of the new hospital in South Hill, Roberts said there is an increased need for qualified physical therapy assistants, and SVCC is developing a credentialing program in that area.

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Hopefully they will continue to allow all high school students the opportunity to take dual enrollment classes. It's no secret that South Boston has a lot of low-income students with no opportunity to grow once they graduate. Allowing dual enrollment helps MANY students and families (including mine) take the next step in going to college. It saved my family quite a bit of money and I wish I had taken more dual enrollment classes in high school.

This would be a great thing for the new superintendent to continue in his new role.

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