Hays CISD officials acting to increase college readiness

Hays CISD officials are trying to bolster their students' readiness for college, and they'll have a partner when Austin Community College opens its Kyle campus in January.

According to the most recent report from the Texas Education Agency, in the 2010–11 school year, the district's students were 4 to 5 percentage points behind the state average in each of the three college-readiness subject areas, which include math, English and a composite of the two.

The story has been similar with the district's dual-credit program. However, according to the TEA, between 2008 and 2012, there was a 42 percent increase in the number of students completing dual-credit and advanced courses. Kim Pool, Hays CISD assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said participation will most likely increase when ACC opens in Kyle.

"Having professors drive all the way over here for two days a week or three days a week was an issue," Pool said. "But with the opening of ACC, we're going to have a building full of professors now."

Dual-credit and AP courses

Dual-credit and advanced-placement courses allow students to take college-level instruction in core academic areas such as English, history and math for which they receive both high school and college credit. ACC waives all tuition and fees for dual-credit classes taken through Hays CISD, so the bill for a college education is reduced.

According to district officials, 406 Hays CISD students completed dual-credit and advanced-placement courses during the 2011–12 school year. When the summer '13 session ends, there could be as many as 449 students who completed dual-credit and AP courses in the 2012–13 school year.

Charlotte Winkelmann, director of Hays CISD's Guidance, Counseling and College Readiness Department, said the district's examination of its dual-credit practices revealed that students needed to begin considering college preparation as early as middle school. In response, the district in 2008 launched the Planning For Tomorrow Today program, which allows parents and students of all ages and grades to receive information about college financial aid and dual-credit courses.

"You can't wake up one morning in your sophomore year and say, 'Hey, I think in the summer I'm going to start dual credit courses,' when you haven't been looking at your academics," Winkelmann said. "We have to start early."

Joann Hall, a sophomore at ACC, graduated from Lehman High School in 2012 with 12 hours of college credit.

According to ACC's tuition rates, Hall's dual-credit classes saved her more than $1,000, but she said the experience of being in a college class was the biggest advantage it gave her.

"It helped me with time management," Hall said. "It prepared me to think a little bit differently. In high school it's more about your SATs and your tests, whereas in college it was more about 'OK, you have to think a little bit bigger here.'"

Articulation

Pool said one of the biggest challenges facing educators is keeping students engaged in the classroom. Course articulation is one way districts such as Hays are trying to keep students interested in the curriculum. Articulation allows students to receive both high school and college credit in career and technical education courses such as welding, health science and video game design.

During the 2011–12 school year, 177 students earned 828 hours of articulation credit.

Students can then apply those courses toward associate degrees or professional licenses. Pool said the certifications and professional licenses obtained through course articulation could help those students work higher-wage jobs as they put themselves through college.

"It's not just directing them toward something they want to do," she said. "It's about reducing that cost toward college and having them more prepared to be successful in college."

Hays Superintendent Michael McKie said the school district may even consider building a joint facility for articulation courses.

"With Austin Community College, do we build a joint facility with them to offer career-based courses, or do we build a career and technical education course-type high school where it's a non-traditional high school?" McKie said. "There are a lot of different things we're going to have to talk about in the future to see how we can best meet the needs of our students and this community."

House Bill 5

The Texas Legislature took up the issue of engaging students in the 83rd Legislative Session that ended in May.

House Bill 5, which was passed by the Legislature and signed into law June 10, creates new "graduation pathways" that allow students to specialize in one of five areas: public services; multidisciplinary studies; business; arts and humanities; and science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

Pool said there are still very few details available about how the new legislation will affect the state's educators, but she believes HB 5 will help engage students by allowing them to pursue classes that are relevant to their interests. The hope is that students who are engaged in this way will remain in school and be more likely to make a smooth transition to a community college or university, she said.

"We're so excited that now there are different pathways for students that celebrate their own strengths and give real strength to areas that kids have interest," Pool said. "It's respectful of individual students' strengths."

Opponents of the bill have argued that asking high school freshmen to decide which specialization they would like to pursue forces them to make a decision that could impact the rest of their lives.

McKie countered that for students who are not ready to choose a specialization, the multidisciplinary studies specialization would allow them to maintain flexibility. Additionally, the bill includes a provision that allows students to opt out of the specializations if they get written permission from a parent or guardian.

McKie said the district will have to determine which courses should be added to the curriculum and which courses need to be expanded to satisfy the new graduation requirements, but he believes the legislation will ultimately help students.

"I think you're going to start seeing more kids staying in school because they can finally take courses that are of interest," McKie said.