High schoolers can earn far more than college credit through an apprenticeship with the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado — there’s a job while they’re in school, and a potential new career that can follow.
The district’s apprenticeship model sends high schoolers into its elementary schools, where they work with younger students helping with reading intervention and other areas. As apprentices, students earn an hourly wage, as well as credit toward a teaching degree and training to be a teacher should they choose to do so later.
“It’s a grow-your-own program,” said Tara Bell, the district’s career and technical education administrator. “That’s the goal. We give them employment and an education.”
Districts are expanding the ways high schoolers can earn credit toward a future degree and moving beyond the Advanced Placement courses sometimes available to students. Instead, these early college programs deliver students practical and employable skills, as well as college credit and sometimes even full degrees.
Apprenticeships bring real world skills
Sophomores in the Cherry Creek School District can apply for the Future Educator Pathway, which begins their junior year. The program requires them to commit to working at least 20 hours a week through 11th and 12th grade and places them in the district’s elementary schools.
While in the program, students take up to eight college courses, or 24 hours of credit, in classes taught by teachers at the high school, who are also adjunct faculty at the University of Colorado Denver. These courses now only count as credit toward an education degree, but if students finish with an overall GPA of 3.0, they earn automatic admission in the school’s teacher education program.
As for fees, as long as students are part of the apprenticeship program, the coursework is free. But more keenly, students are paid for their work in the classroom, with rates starting at $12.68 an hour and having potential to increase to $15.52 as they continue.
“We really want to cultivate the next generation of teachers, and we would love for them to stay in Cherry Creek,” said Bell. “And if they don’t stay in Cherry Creek, we’re cultivating teachers who are desperately needed.”
Cost savings increase achievement opportunities
For some students, having a few classes under their belt helps them gain a bit of the college experience before they formally step on campus. But if students have a way to earn these credits for free, or even at a reduced price, they can also save money and potentially require fewer student loans by reducing the number of classes they’ll need to finish their college degree.
The El Paso Independent School District in Texas offers one such free route, through its P-TECH programming. This option also allows students to earn an associate degree. Students accepted into P-TECH begin their freshman year of high school and can study different disciplines to earn an EMT certification, or experience toward a teaching, nursing, computer science or business degree.
Jason Long, the district's executive director of college and career readiness and innovation, knows the head start toward a degree is attractive, but he’s also keenly aware of how valuable the free classes are.
“The community college waives tuition, and the school district picks up textbook costs,” said Long. “That makes it essentially free, within Texas, as Texas schools are required to take the credits. And there’s also a time savings, because if they go to a four-year school, they have two years done if the credits transfer.”
In the School District of Pickens County in South Carolina, students can take courses at a reduced fee through a dual-enrollment program with Tri-County Technical College. The credits are then transferrable to schools including Clemson University and the University of South Carolina, as long as students earn a "C" or better. The district will also give students up to $300 each year if they sign up for the program, and those who take two courses through the college can take classes at half the regular tuition rate.
There’s also a free engineering pathway for students called the Accelerate program, offered through the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics. It allows 10th-graders to take college classes at Clemson University, and in some cases, they can transfer those credits to schools including Auburn and Georgia Tech.
“I can’t imagine walking away from high school with 32 to 40 hours of college credit for free, but they can,” said Lori Gwinn, the district’s director of secondary education. “It gives them so many opportunities that they’re not really aware that they have.”
Expanding access and attainment
High schoolers who take college-level courses may do more than help their finances or their college options — it may also boost their chance of graduating, according to an Institute of Education Sciences study that examined the impact of accelerated college credit programs on students in Rhode Island. The researchers looked at high school graduation rates and the chances of students eventually going to college.
The probability that students who enrolled in accelerated classes will graduate high school increased 21 percentage points, while the probability of the same students enrolling in college within a year of graduating high school went up 30 percentage points.
“We found it beneficial,” said Katherine Shields, a senior researcher with the Education Development Center who worked on the study. “It did look at each of these topics, and found that they had a positive effect on attainment.”
Most striking, noted Shields, was that the programs benefited all students who took part in them — no matter where they lived or their economic background.
“We looked at students with economic disadvantages and those who did not, and found it was positive in both groups,” she said. “We saw this could be used to addressed inequities in college access.”
Expanding access was front of mind for the El Paso Independent School District, too, when it designed its P-TECH programming. It is also playing a role as the district continues to roll out the option to new schools.
The district’s goal is that all 10 of its traditional high schools will have a program on each campus, and that the different options, from medical to teaching, will be geographically placed so no matter where students live, they can reach one without traveling too far.
Previous early college programs in the district had sometimes required students to find their own transportation or travel 45 minutes by bus, said Long. Now those classes will be at their home school, or buses can be offered to take them to the community college. The difference, noted Long, is more students can get a head start on college, no matter their circumstances.
“Most of our students are economically disadvantaged with a lot of responsibilities, from taking care of siblings, or they have a job, and this helps those families too,” he said. “Now there is equity, and all kids have a chance to go.”