In recent years, the district has touted its growth in Advanced Placement course-taking among black and Latino students. Education experts say the introduction to tougher academic coursework in high school helps pave a smoother path to college. But there’s a significant caveat: Far fewer students achieve the ultimate goal of college credit by earning a 3 or higher on AP exams. 

Enter Richard Gelb’s senior English composition class on the third floor of Juarez High School in Pilsen, where an alternative to AP coursework is on display. The class is one of a growing number of dual credit classes that bring college coursework to high school campuses.

Today, four young women lead the class through a PowerPoint on the story “Vampires Never Die.” They discuss the history of vampire lore, present a literary analysis and define advanced vocabulary, such as panacea and dystopia.

When they are done, Gelb asks if anyone has questions. They don’t, so Gelb has them pick questions from a set he has handed out. One question is about gender roles. A student named Kevin observes that vampires are usually men; if they were women, they would be called witches. After the discussion, the rest of the period is spent writing essays.

Stephanie Gil says Gelb’s class is similar to the AP English class she took last year, with one big difference:  She is much more likely to earn college credit.

Dual credit courses, along with dual enrollment courses that bring high schools students to college campuses, make up the district’s Early College program and are changing the high school day for a growing number of students. In CPS, enrollment in early college courses has soared from 816 three years ago to 2,350 this year. Over the next two years, CPS and the City Colleges of Chicago would like to see the number reach 4,000. (Only a handful of students take early college courses at other institutions.)

AP graphic

About 89 percent of students in dual enrollment classes and 79 percent of those in dual credit courses earn college credit for them, according to CPS.

The growth of early college course-taking in CPS mirrors that of many suburban and rural school districts in Illinois. In some districts, virtually every senior graduates with at least some college credit.

The trend is national too. According to the most recent data from the National Center on Education Statistics, 82 percent of high schools had students enrolling in dual enrollment coursework in 2011. (Many of these students were in career and technical education courses.) 

Seats left empty

Before 2011, only small pockets of students participated in early college classes. Only five high schools offered dual credit classes and about 600 students took dual enrollment classes. Some high schools had small, one-off programs that sent students to City Colleges and other colleges, but the effort wasn’t coordinated and bureaucratic snafus sometimes cropped up.

Freda Richmond, early college manager at City Colleges, says that it was a “best-kept secret.” 

In 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told CPS and City Colleges to work together to increase early college participation. In 2012, the City Colleges started offering 100 free courses to high schools at each of its seven campuses.

Now, 30 high schools offer dual credit and scores of students are in dual enrollment courses.

The benefits are well documented. A 2013 study by the American Institutes for Research found that students in early college programs had higher graduation and college enrollment rates than a comparison group of students. The study examined an initiative in California community colleges that was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Plus, students and their families can save a lot of money. One young man at Kennedy High School earned all the prerequisites for the City Colleges nursing program. “He has been really strategic,” says Josh Kaufmann, senior manager of Early College Initiatives for CPS.

Being on a college campus can be especially important for those first-generation college-goers and shows them they can be successful in college, Kaufmann adds.

Says Richmond: “This is a great opportunity to see if you are ready for the rigor of college. This demystifies college.”

In CPS, most early college students take English or math courses, and must be a junior or senior with a GPA of at least 2.5 to be eligible. (Some students take career and technical education classes, which do not have any requirements.)

To earn credit, students have to meet requirements set out by City Colleges. For example, in Gelb’s English class, students have to submit three essays and earn passing grades on them. Of 31 students, 30 earned college credit last year.

Chadra Lang, who works for Kaufmann at CPS, notes that one of the best things about dual credit and dual enrollment is that it gives mid-level students an opportunity to earn college credit, which doesn’t happen with AP courses.

Suburban and rural high schools came to this realization long ago. At Alton High School in Alton, Ill., about 25 minutes from St. Louis, most students take at least one early college class. The school’s program has been running strong for at least five years.

Assistant Principal Catherine Elliott says the school is just starting to offer AP classes, mostly to attract students who are considering more selective universities and want the chance to get transferable credits. Some out-of-state colleges, and highly selective schools like Northwestern University, won’t take credits issued by Lewis and Clark College, the community college in the area.

Rewards for the motivated

For those that do dual enrollment classes, perhaps the most important, if intangible, benefit to students is the experience of actually going to a college campus.

While a student at Phoenix Military Academy, Francisco Peralta took English 101 and English 102 at Harold Washington College in the Loop. The classes started at 7 p.m. and lasted an hour and a half, allowing him to continue participating in after-school activities.

“I was the youngest one there,” Peralta says. He ended up enrolling at Harold Washington because it is more affordable than the four-year colleges he was accepted into. Making the transition was easy.

Juarez Principal Juan Ocon prefers dual credit classes because sometimes traveling to college campuses and fitting an off-site class into a school day can be difficult for students.

Yet offering dual credit classes can be a challenge also. For one, the high school teacher must have a masters’ degree in the subject they are teaching. Many teachers do not, though they have advanced degrees in education.  

Gelb, who is also Juarez’s assistant principal, is unique: He has a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Gelb usually teaches freshmen, because of the importance of freshman year. But for the last two years, he has taught the dual credit class. “Teaching these students is a treat,” he says.

Gelb has one complaint. Only students who get a certain score on the Compass exam—the placement exam for City Colleges—can take dual credit courses. That leaves out students who don’t take the exam but might benefit from the exposure to college coursework.

That the students in Gelb’s class at Juarez are among the motivated is obvious. Stephanie Gil and her two friends, Marisol Dominguez and Teresa Calderon, each took three AP classes last year. Stephanie was the only one to earn college credit, and she did so in only one class. 

Stephanie had also participated in a summer program at Harvard so she was familiar with the rigors of a difficult curriculum. (She got deferred early admission at Harvard.)

Teresa wants to enroll in pre-med courses at Elmhurst College. Last year, she took Juarez’s dual credit math program, passed it and will save money by having several math classes already behind her.

Marisol is mother to a little girl, so she plans to stay close to home for college, enrolling in a nursing program at either Daley College or St. Xavier University. She giggles when she says she only scored a 1 or a 2 on the AP exams she took last year. “I am not going to lie. I was not even close.”

Marisol is the only one of the three young women who is nervous about going to college next year, especially about meeting new people. She was nervous, too, about taking college-level classes. Now, she’s glad she did.

Looking at her friends, she says: “They encouraged me.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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