By TOM McLAUGHLIN
News & Record Staff
Seven years ago, Geoffrey Orth served on a panel studying college-level academic programs at Prince Edward High School. Apart from having a son rise through the system and gain acceptance to the Naval Academy, Orth brought an impeccable credential to the job: a college professor, he directs the honors program at Longwood University in Farmville.
After a year of study, the committee made its recommendation — Prince Edward should aggressively adopt an Advanced Placement curriculum. At the time, Prince Edward High School featured one option, the Southside Virginia Community College dual enrollment program, which allowed college-bound students to earn high school and community college credits in the same class.
There were many reasons why the committee felt Prince Edward should make the switch, but foremost was the perception that “basically, the poorest and least educated counties in the state were the ones most likely to use dual enrollment rather than AP,” as Orth puts it.
“As a colleague said the other day, while the rest of the world is rapidly moving from reinforcing AP or adding new IB [International Baccalaureate] programs, Southside Virginia is stuck with dual enrollment,” said Orth.
That sort of talk raises the hackles of officials at the state’s community colleges, which provide dual enrollment programs to local school divisions. John Cavan, president of SVCC, said the perception that dual enrollment suffers in comparison to other college-level options such as AP is flat out wrong.
“I have a grandson who goes to school in Leesburg, Virginia, and I have tried to convince his mother to have him come live with me so he can take advantage of the wonderful educational opportunities that exist in Southside Virginia,” said Cavan. Dual enrollment classes offered on community college campuses and at area high schools are superior to the academic offerings at Leesburg, one of the state’s most prestigious school divisions, Cavan said.
“There can be no greater endorsement for these programs,” he added, “than that of a college president who wants his own grandson to benefit from them.”
Two outspoken academic officials, two polar opposite points of view. Who’s right?
To answer that question, one should be prepared to wade into a bewildering thicket of claims and counterclaims, if not outright sniping. Both the dual enrollment and Advanced Placement programs have their ardent defenders — and critics. Each camp can point to reams of research touting the merits of their preferred program, and neither side is above occasionally pointing out the perceived deficiencies of the other.
Yet in one sense, asking whether Halifax County would be better off with AP or dual enrollment is to become sidetracked by the wrong question. A better debate, at least from Halifax County’s perspective, might be: Why not both?
With outside resources available to fund the costs of both programs, and with neighboring school divisions showing that AP and dual enrollment can happily co-exist, Halifax County shouldn’t face an either-or choice on the best ways to prepare students for futures in higher education or in the career world, say officials both in and outside the school system.
Yet so far, the school administration has not found a way to make the combination work. Partly that’s due to the resistance of community college officials, SVCC President Cavan in particular, who insists that dual enrollment classes at HCHS cannot be integrated with AP offerings. “I wish they could [be offered together],” says Superintendent of Schools Paul Stapleton. “It would certainly make my job a lot easier.”
But others suggest that Stapleton, with a helpful assist from Cavan, is determined not to let college-level alternatives such as AP supplant college-level (CL) dual enrollment classes at the high school. Joe Gasperini, a school trustee who has emerged as a sharp critic of Stapleton, says dual enrollment, along with the related academies program, lies at the heart of the superintendent’s desire to market the public schools as a K-12 version of a community college.
It’s a misguided plan if other valuable programs get squeezed out as a result, he said.
“”All these other counties are taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity [with AP] and we’re turning our backs on it,” said Gasperini.
Halifax County is a flashpoint in the AP vs. dual enrollment debate owing to two factors: the robust — some say outsized — nature of the dual enrollment program at HCHS, and South Boston’s status as home to the Virginia Advanced Study Strategies (VASS). The grant-funded VASS program, housed at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, was formed in 2007 to promote the spread of Advanced Placement courses to rural and poor school divisions around the state.
Halifax County was one of the first school divisions invited to join VASS, which is headed by Paul Nichols, former director of academies for the Halifax schools. Nichols’ old boss, Stapleton, says he was closely involved in the process of obtaining millions of dollars in grant funds to pay for the VASS program. Yet because Halifax County has not made AP a regular part of the high school curriculum, there’s a strong chance VASS will pull up stakes in the Halifax County public schools and find other divisions that are willing to give the Advanced Placement curriculum the prominence it deserves, Nichols has said.
Boasting of the range of dual enrollment offerings at the high school, officials have made bold claims that HCHS students earn more dual enrollment credits than any group of high schoolers in the nation. The raw numbers certainly blow away those from elsewhere in the region: 62 percent of students at HCHS — 1,141 out of 1,828 —take dual enrollment courses, either through SVCC or Danville Community College. By comparison, 23 percent of the 686 students at Randolph-Henry High School in Charlotte County are signed up for dual enrollment. And Charlotte County counts itself among the program’s most ardent supporters. “We have been extremely invested in dual enrollment for many, many years,” said Division Superintendent Melody Hackney.
Halifax’s participation in the program is a major reason why SVCC ranks as the top provider of dual enrollment credits in Virginia. SVCC awards more college credit and has more area high schoolers participating in dual enrollment classes than any of the state’s other 22 community colleges. Last year, fully 28 percent of SVCC full-time equivalents— defined as students earning 30 credits in a year —were still attending high school: 898 students in all. By comparison, Northern Virginia Community College claimed only 520 high school full-time equivalents, despite being eight times the size of SVCC. Dual enrollment students last year made up 16 percent of Danville Community College’s full-time population, double the statewide average.
SVCC may be the volume leader in awarding dual enrollment credits, but the program is increasingly important to the entire Virginia Community College System. High school participants accounted for essentially all the growth of the VCCS student body from 2002 to 2008, according to statistics. That reflects a deliberate policy aim to widen access to higher education, especially among segments of the population that historically have been left out.
Occasionally the program runs into criticism from policymakers “who feel like it’s double dipping,” said Belle Wheelan, a former Virginia education secretary who now heads the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). That’s a reference to the approximate $3,000-per-head cost of the program, which is layered on top of state funding for K-12 education. While wealthier school divisions such as Fairfax have shown less interest in dual enrollment, seeing other options such as AP or IB as superior, “there have been some very successful programs for the students that have participated,” including in Southside, Wheelan said. “It’s a choice for the individual community.”
In 2006, the General Assembly boosted the program by enacting legislation to smooth the transfer of community college credits to the state’s public universities and colleges. What had been a haphazard system of some institutions accepting dual credits while others did not was swept away, replaced by a policy of blanket acceptance — although some public colleges and universities will not allow students with dual credits to opt out of core requirements, no matter how well their community college transcript reads. Senior institutions such as the University of the Virginia do, as a rule, allow students with high AP scores to opt out of freshman core requirement.
Among Virginia’s private colleges, dual enrollment credits are widely accepted, and the credits generally transfer at out-of-state institutions, public and private, as well. Yet there are exceptions. Last year, New York University said it would no longer accept dual enrollment credits, citing concerns over the quality of the programs, and many exclusive colleges and universities have similarly declined to jump on the bandwagon.
Yet in an era of soaring tuition and college costs, there’s no doubt many students can and do enjoy enormous economic benefits by getting a head start on college while they’re still in high school. “Dual enrollment is primarily an access vehicle,” noted Monte Sullivan, vice chancellor for academic services and research with the Virginia Community College System.
Students who earn an Associate’s degree while still in high school can enter Virginia’s public colleges as juniors. Many others bypass all or part of their freshman and sophomore years even if they fall short of an Associate’s degree. The program is especially valuable in places like Southside Virginia, said Sullivan, where higher education has too often been viewed as an unattainable goal. “All of these opportunities are important because it gives students an opportunity to see that college is for them,” Sullivan said.
I n the faculty halls of colleges and universities, however, questions continually crop up about dual enrollment: Are high school students, freshmen and sophomores included, really up to the rigors of college-level work? Are dual credit classes provided through school divisions such as Halifax County on par with campus offerings? Does it serve the interests of students and their families to tout a program as college-level if it’s not?
No one doubts that high school students with extensive dual enrollment backgrounds can and do excel once they reach college. And there’s no conclusive research to suggest that high school dual enrollment courses are setting students up for failure, nor do critics of the programs generally make such sweeping claims. But they do say the programs are disturbingly inconsistent, with the end result being that some students are shortchanged by the college-level experience. Anecdotes abound of students who move too far, too fast up the academic ladder in high school only to tumble once they reach college.
“I think there are excellent dual enrollment programs, and there are students who have benefited from dual enrollment, but I think in Southside Virginia, anyway … it’s very uneven,” said Ellery Sedgwick, professor emeritus of English at Longwood University. “I have tested students at Longwood with dual enrollment credits who would have placed into remediation. On the other hand, I’ve seen dual enrollment students who are excellent and are fully prepared for their freshman years.”
Orth, a colleague at Longwood, said he doubts one of the central claims of the program — that a large number of dual enrollment credits will speed a student’s path to graduation. “We had a valedictorian at a high school in Southside Virginia who went to UVa. with about 50 credits of dual enrollment and he bypassed most of the first two years,” said Orth. “At 18 he was taking mostly junior level courses. And guess what? He dropped out.”
What distinguishes AP, said Orth, Sedgwick and others, is the program’s national standard for college-level work and the requirement that students pass an exit exam to prove mastery of the subject matter. “Whether you’re taking the test for biology credit in Pennsylvania or Mississippi or Oregon, you’re taking the same test. That’s why they say it’s a national standard,” said Orth. “It’s not like it’s up to the teacher of the course to made the decision whether the student gets college credit or not.
With dual enrollment, “you don’t know if the student coming in is up for college level work because it’s open ended,” said Orth.
“But I’m sure John Cavan could sit down and give you all kinds of success stories.”
Cavan, feisty and confident in his point of view — a fellow academic described him as a “street fighter” — is more than willing to take on skeptics of the program. “Dual enrollment is the new kid on the block. AP has been around for a long time,” said Cavan, who derides AP as “a teaching-to-the-test operation.” “[Dual enrollment] gives Southside Virginia more of an opportunity for higher education. We have statistics to show that dual enrollment students do just as well if not better than students in AP,” Cavan said.
“We have a real winner here,” he added.
Eager to research the issue itself, Longwood officials are planning to conduct a study in the near future to see how students with AP and dual enrollment credits fare once they reach college, said Wayne McWee, vice president for academic affairs. McWee reiterated Longwood’s official policy of blanket acceptance of dual enrollment credits but, speaking personally as a parent of two children — one who took mostly AP classes in high school, the other who took dual enrollment — he expressed a preference for AP. “I had some concern about dual enrollment classes [that my son took at Prince Edward High School] in that I did not find them to be nearly as rigorous as the AP classes that my daughter took,” said McWee. “I found the AP classes to be much more rigorous and demanding.”
In addition to being professor emeritus at Longwood, Sedgwick is a member of the Prince Edward school board. He said he set out two years ago to see if Virginia has conducted any sort of standardized testing to assess the rigor of dual enrollment classes. Sedgwick said after he made an inquiry, the Virginia Department of Education indicated that it has no such research, although “I would characterize their response as sympathetic to the idea that there are quality problems in the dual enrollment program,” he said.
But it was a second query, this time directed to the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia, that prompted an eye-opening response. In an October 2007 email communication, a SCHEV official wrote back to Sedgwick: “The Virginia Community College System recently conducted an audit of dual enrollment and put a stop at least in terms of policy to the free-for-all enrollment at some schools, and I have been ensured it will perform a follow-up to ensure policy compliance.” Sedgwick would not identify the sender.
Orth, who also has seen the e-mail, claims the reference was clearly to SVCC, but he added the community college hasn’t responded by tightening up its program: “If the free-for-all enrollment has ended, they haven’t gotten the message at some of our area schools yet, it looks like,” Orth said.
Sullivan, vice chancellor for academics for the community college system, bristled at the description of a dual enrollment “free-for-all” and said the VCCS has no reason to believe SVCC or any other college in the system has made the program too easy or permissive for students. “That is not an appropriate characterization of it at all,” said Sullivan. “I’ve never heard of dual enrollment or our enrollment of students from the junior or senior level referred to in those terms.”
The VCCS regularly audits dual enrollment programs around the state, Sullivan said, and “our audit shop does a pretty consistent job of ensuring compliance across the system.” The audits are designed to ensure that faculty are qualified — dual enrollment instructors are required to have master’s degrees and 18 hours of credit in their academic specialties — and courses taught in the high school setting must match the same courses taught on community college campuses. High school teachers who teach the courses are required to have master’s degrees and they work under the supervision of community college faculty.
Furthermore, the community colleges administer entrance exams designed to ensure that only qualified students take dual enrollment classes. In Halifax County, DCC and SVCC have combined with the school system to hire a guidance counselor who can advise students on their dual credit options.
“I can’t speak to where the perception came from, but what I can speak to is that the rigor in place with our dual enrollment effort is the same as what’s in place in our traditional [community college] program,” said Sullivan.
Contacted for comment, SCHEV’s policy research direction, Tod Massa, said he had no knowledge of the e-mail missive to Sedgwick. Massa said SCHEV leaves the job of evaluating dual enrollment programs to the community college system.
However, Massa said SCHEV does plan this summer to do a study on dual enrollment to see if students’ success rates once in college match those of their peers. He said Radford University did a study comparing AP, IB and dual enrollment students in which the latter group compared favorably, but SCHEV is interested in developing a broader picture around the state.
In 2003, prior to the adoption of the blanket acceptance policy for dual enrollment credits, SCHEV bandied around the idea of a broad study on dual enrollment. A 2003 SCHEV report recommended that “a comprehensive study of the costs, purposes, policies and practices in dual credit programs in the Commonwealth should be conducted” to address nagging concerns among Virginia college and university faculty.
“The study should examine the effectiveness of dual credit programs in accelerating time-to-degree, increasing access to college degree programs, and providing more rigorous academics for high-achieving students, as well as perceptions and attitudes of stakeholders toward acceptance of college-level credits earned in high school,” the report read. “Additional information is also needed to compare the academic performance of dual credit students and students who complete Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.
“Such a study is recommended before any policies are developed to encourage further expansion of such programs,” the report continued.
The report never happened, said Massa, who said the council was swamped with other demands by the General Assembly. Massa said portions of the 2003 SHVEC report were “not well done by the folks who were there at the time” and were rendered moot by subsequent changes in state policy. He said SCHEV is “not oblivious” to concerns about dual enrollment, but it has not received specific negative feedback from universities, either.
“We have not heard anything untoward about dual enrollment,” said Massa. “By and large motivated students are motivated students.”
That statement echoes the point made by Advanced Placement advocates in calling for a higher profile for AP at Halifax County High School. Even with all the potential economic advantages that dual enrollment provides, there will always be students who crave the challenges of AP, they say. More students might be interested in AP if the administration took a more pro-active approach to encouraging participation, they say.
Halifax offered full-time AP classes a few years ago, well before VASS came on the scene. With the focus turning to dual enrollment, interest in AP waned. Today, Stapleton points to a student survey conducted back in January to buttress the claims that there’s little desire for a full-fledged AP curriculum at HCHS. Yet Stapleton also says “potentially we may end up with more students taking AP [exams] than in the divisions around us.” The high school offers AP tutorials as Saturday and after-school options, and the tutorials have drawn around 70 participants interested in taking AP exams, he said.
The VASS AP program is not without economic benefits, too. Students who pass the exam with a 3 or better (on a scale of 1-5) earn college credit at most colleges and universities, although some institutions award credits only to students scoring 4s or 5s. More to the point, students can make $100 with each exam they pass — a direct cash incentive offered by VASS. VASS also lavishes bonuses on teachers who undergo the rigorous training required to lead the courses. Various incentives can add up to thousands of dollars annually for teachers, especially when sizeable numbers of their students pass the courses.
In the high school survey, only nine students out 313 expressed a preference for AP. Another 81 favored the CL dual enrollment curriculum and 223 wanted the option of both. Given the community college’s position on the issue, and uncertain interest among students, Advanced Placement may have a difficult time finding a foothold at Halifax, said Stapleton.
“It’s kind of numbers-driven,” said Stapleton.
Other school divisions have found ways to make the combination work. Danville City Schools, for instance, place a heavy emphasis on AP, while at the same time students earn dual credit for high school coursework. Danville’s higher education partner is Danville Community College, whose president, Carlyle Ramsey, strikes a markedly different tone than his counterpart at SVCC regarding the two programs.
“Frankly, I think the more choices you have, the better, and it’s a win-win with both,” said Ramsey.
For the most part, said Ramsey, Danville AP classes are taught separately from the dual-enrollment CL curriculum, although “there are some instances when we have an arrangement where you have them co-existing.” George Washington High School and the small Galileo Magnet High School, (which attracts high-achieving students), offer both dual enrollment and AP classes. “They’re equally proven and a good option for students and parents,” Ramsey said. “In my mind it shouldn’t be either-or, but that’s up to the school board and administration.”
In Charlotte County, said Division Superintendent Melody Hackney, students at Randolph-Henry High School are completing their first year of AP classes. Charlotte County was among the second wave of school divisions chosen to participate in VASS, after 14 school divisions were tapped in the first year, including Halifax County. Randolph-Henry, which has about one-third as many students as HCHS, anticipates three offerings in the second year of the program: AP English, AP Statistics and AP Calculus.
Unlike in Halifax County, there’s been little talk of layering AP and dual enrollment on top of one another. “I just don’t see the necessity of doing so,” said Hackney, who says she is confident Randolph-Henry has enough students for both programs to co-exist. “They’re two different programs with incredible value and integrity to offer our students.”
Prince Edward, despite grappling with the issue seven years ago, only recently has made AP the foundation of the college-track program at Prince Edward High School. “We recommended it to the superintendent” at the time, said Orth, “and she thought of all kinds of reasons why they couldn’t expand AP.” Her successor, Dr. Patricia Watkins, has made AP a central focus at Prince Edward High School.
“She has come in and gone in the other direction,” said Orth.
A teacher at Halifax County High School who is closely involved with the dual enrollment program said it will take a change of thinking at the top for AP to gain a foothold at HCHS. “I think the reason we do not have AP is totally Paul Stapleton,” the teacher said. “I think it’s an embarrassment — we have this fantastic, grant-funded program with Paul Nichols … and Mr. Stapleton on more than one occasion has bragged about us having more CL classes than anyone in the country. I feel he is more interested in that reputation than the well-being of the students,” said the teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.
Gasperini, who expressed similar frustrations, claims Stapleton and Cavan have banded together to freeze out the program — for reasons of prestige, bragging rights and money. “He [Cavan] has a huge incentive to sell dual enrollment. It’s very upsetting,” said Gasperini.
Community college representatives say that’s not so, especially from a financial standpoint. “Dual enrollment is not a major money-maker for our colleges. It’s much more in line with what I’d call a service offered to the community,” said Sullivan. “It’s a primary access vehicle for us. We’re concerned with the number of Virginians who participate in higher education.”
Cavan also dismissed the claim and said dual enrollment is “very cost effective,” not only for school divisions and Virginia’s system of higher education, but for students and their families, too.
He also said the program at SVCC has held up to outside scrutiny — an audit two years ago turned up only minor infractions, and parents and students rate the program highly in surveys. The doubters have their facts wrong, Cavan insists.
“The VCCS audited dual enrollment at Southside two years ago … and they didn’t find one critical issue about dual enrollment. We study and restudy and continually look at ourselves — and if that’s not enough, I don’t know what is.”
Two recent graduates of Halifax County High School offer differing perspectives of what dual enrollment meant to them. Amanda Barksdale, a first-generation college student in her second year at Longwood, expects to finish in three years with a Master’s degree and go straight into the teaching profession. She was able to enter Longwood as a second-semester sophomore thanks to the 47 dual enrollment credits she earned in high school through DCC and SVCC.
“Those credits have saved me about $15,000 in tuition fees by allowing me to graduate early,” Barksdale wrote in a recent e-mail. “I believe anyone who has to start from scratch when they enter college has a hard four years ahead because they struggle to get the amount of credits needed for their major.
“Most people think that when you take the college level classes in high school, you aren’t getting the experience as you would in the college classroom. I actually believe I learned more in the high school classroom because you are in the class every day for almost two hours, as opposed to 2-3 times a week for about an hour here at Longwood,” wrote Barksdale. “I would hate to see [dual enrollment credits] taken out of the high school because they are a great thing to have under your belt for a student furthering his or her education.”
Andrew Witko is a recent graduate of the private University of Richmond now working in the Washington, D.C., area. Witko ranked eighth in his class at HCHS, did well on his college boards and said he felt ready coming out of HCHS for the workload ahead of him at UR. But he soon found out that students who had AP under their belts were ahead of the game.
“You don’t really think about it while you’re a high school student,” said Witko, whose father is a physician. “You don’t appreciate what you’re going through until you have someone to compare to.” Witko said that to call college-level courses “college level is kind of an insult to real college classes, I’d say. The academics were just not rigorous enough, the workload wasn’t nearly as difficult. The type of work, I wouldn’t call it college level.”
“You really do see things differently attending college with people who could access 25 AP classes as opposed to Halifax where you have two. It was a noticeable difference when I was at UR.”
A college-level teacher at HCHS who requested anonymity offered this assessment of the dual enrollment program at HCHS: “I think that we try our best, but we’re still dealing with 16 year olds and sometimes 15 year olds, and because you’re in a high school setting it’s not truly a college offering.” A lot depends on the quality of the teacher, the teacher added: “In some case the classes are pretty rigorous, others not. Every student of mine that I talked to felt prepared for college … [but] I think we should have AP and CL even though I teach CL. There are students who want to go to U.Va. and Duke who want to have AP classes because they know they’ll look more favorably on AP classes.
“Why wouldn’t you want to offer the most choices? We have a school of 1,800 … We’re not a community college. We’re a public school. The community college should not be dictating what we offer to our students,” the teacher said.
Stapleton, for his part, denies feeling any pressure from the community colleges to freeze out AP.
“It’s not been from the outside that there’s been any kind of pushback,” he said.
A few years ago, the faculty at Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville confronted the issue of whether dual enrollment coursework was up to the standards that the college set for its own academic program. A substantial number of professors felt the answer was no. For a time, Hampden-Sydney was poised to drop its policy of blanket acceptance of dual enrollment credits. Instead, a majority of faculty wanted to award college credits only if students could show mastery of the subject area by successfully completing an Advanced Placement test.
“We actually did more than just float this,” admitted Dean of the Faculty Robert Herdegen, a member of the H-SC psychology department since 1981. “The argument, quite frankly, was that it [AP tests] would provide a uniform standard of assessing a student’s performance.”
The more the college thought about it, however, the less compelling the idea seemed. For one thing, said Herdegen, there was no evidence to suggest that students who came in with loads of dual enrollment credits were lagging in the classroom. For another, not many students entered Hampden-Sydney with a mind toward getting out early anyway. “It turns out, by and large, that students were almost all taking the full complement of classes here,” said Herdegen, who added that “students often get here and rather enjoy the [traditional college] experience and want to have full four years here.
“There wasn’t any evidence they were being harmed by it or anything like that, so we decided to continue to accept [the credits],” he added.
But there was another factor in the faculty’s decision not to press the policy change, he concedes: Hampden-Sydney starting hearing voices of frustration from among the community colleges. “I don’t know what they were thinking — whether it was a feeling that we were not respecting what they were doing, I don’t know,” said Herdegen, who said he cannot point to any specific individuals who complained. “But they let us know they were unhappy about it and this was not the way to go.
“Our dean of admissions did comment that she heard from some guidance counselors from across the state who said, ‘Wait a minute, if you go forward with that policy, we don’t know if we want to recommend Hampden-Sydney to our students …. The discussions we had were fairly typical of the discussions we have on such matters. I think it’s probably fair to say that one was one of the factors.”
However, if the college ever decides that dual enrollment is preparing incoming students for the rigors of college work, Herdegen said Hampden-Sydney could change its mind.
“We will maintain the integrity of our academic program. In the end that’s the most important thing to us,” said Herdegen. “If we start compromising that even in small ways, we’re going to get into trouble with who were are …. In the end, we’re going to do what we need to do to maintain the quality of education that we’re provided for 230 years.”
Asked about Herdegen’s account, and whether he played any role personally in convincing Hampden-Sydney to back down on accepting dual credits, SVCC’s Cavan waved off the question.
“I think they should accept dual enrollment credit, but I can’t do anything about that. That’s their prerogative,” he said. “I have to respect their decisions.”
QUESTION: How much does dual enrollment cost the Halifax County school division?
At first blush, the answer would seem to be very little. The two providers of dual enrollment courses at HCHS, Danville Community College and Southside Virginia Community College, last year billed the Halifax County Public Schools for total tuition costs of $872,392.75. But the community college system also provided a rebate of $854,944.90. That left a net bill of $17,447.85, or about 2 percent of the total tuition, said Finance Director Bill Covington.
Compared to the tuition payments that other area school divisions make to the community colleges, Halifax County would appear to enjoy a terrific bargain. Charlotte County has 157 students signed up for dual enrollment courses at Randolph-Henry High School — about one-seventh the number of HCHS students in the program (1,141). Yet Charlotte's net tuition bill this year will run around $80,000, more than four times the amount paid by Halifax County schools during the 2008 school year.
Similarly, there are about 167 students taking dual enrollment courses at County's two high schools, yet SVCC charges net tuition of just under $100,000. Mecklenburg County requires students to maintain a "B" average in order for the system to pick up their tuition. That standard is higher than the "C" average students are required to maintain to receive college credit.
How does Halifax County do it? How can it send six and seven times the number of students through its dual enrollment program and still pay only a fraction of the tuition costs racked up by neighboring school divisions? The answer lies in how the dual enrollment program is structured between the local school division and the community colleges. Unlike other divisions, which frequently rely on the community colleges to provide the teachers and facilities, Halifax Public Schools uses its own teachers and facilities — while DCC and SVCC provide guidance and oversight.
Dual enrollment's proponents note that the school division would be paying for teachers and other instructional costs with or without the program. But additional costs do arise. One is the requirement that dual enrollment teachers have masters degrees, as well as 18 hours of credit in their academic disciplines. Teachers with masters degrees — and there are some 200 of them in the system — earn a $2,080 salary supplement. Roughly half of the teachers with masters degrees work at the high school and middle school, said Covington.
"We feel like it's a multiple win for us, to have teachers with higher qualifications," said Covington. The dual enrollment program provides a push for teachers to further develop their qualifications, "but that in no way is connected to any one program," said Covington. "That's just a general philosophy."
Then there are administrative costs: Two Central Office staffers directly oversee the academies program (which feature some dual-enrollment classes), director Melanie Stanley and supervisor Virginia Jones. Two others, Frosty Owens and Kevin Neal, have responsibility for the STEM Center, where many dual enrollment classes are conducted. An additional expense is the dual enrollment coordinator at the high school, Shawn Haws. Haws' $65,787 salary is shared in equal thirds by the school division and the two community colleges.
Despite administration assurances that staffing and teacher personnel costs would be largely the same with or without the academies and dual enrollment in place, School Board trustee Joe Gasperini said he believes that the program has hidden costs, especially in administration, which he would target first if forced to cut the budget.
"If you really are going to make cuts, why wouldn't you make the cuts in areas that don't affect instruction?" he said.
Another little-discussed cost of dual enrollment — although school board members are talking about it against the current budget backdrop— is the expense of offering a sizeable number of classes with few students. Dual enrollment participation data provided by the Central Office shows the following enrollments:
n French IV: 8 students
n Electronics I & II (combined): 10 students
n Calculus II: 10 students
n Building Trades II: 7 students
n Robotics I & II (combined): 13 students
n Cisco computer networking: 10 students, first semester; 9 students, second semester.
n Advanced Marketing: 5 students
n Advanced Accounting: 7 students
n Drafting II: 5 students
n Horse management: 9 students, first semester; 13 students, second semester
n Introduction to engineering: 11 students
Given the specific focus of the academies and dual enrollment — classes are grouped into two categories, college-level and career-and-technical prep— it's not uncommon to see students sign up in fairly large numbers for low-level courses, then not proceed to higher-level offerings in the same field, said Deputy Superintendent Larry Clark.
"I think the analogy people often use is that participation in an academy is almost like declaring a major in an undergraduate school," said Clark. "The higher one gets into the years of study, the more specific the coursework." An example is drafting courses at HCHS: Drafting 1 draws about 35 students a semester, while Drafting II has an enrollment of 5 students.
"In a budget situation like we have facing us in the 2009-2010 school year, obviously the cost per pupil to offer some of these higher-level elective subjects is on the table," said Clark.
Before yanking programs away, however, the School Board must consider the downside of frustrating the aspirations of students who have focused on their career or college-level work. "I think we have an obligation to the group of children who are taking the highest level courses" to see the programs through, said Clark. In his opinion, said Clark, it would be better to terminate programs of studies before students enter the pipeline, just as the School Board has said it will do with the Regional Governor's School.
"If you have obligated yourself to offer a class, you should offer it," he said. "But you do look at [the question], Do you offer it in the next cycle?
"That is a constant dilemma when you offer these high-level courses," he said. "They are not going to attract large numbers of children. It has never happened, and it's not going to happen."
SVCC President John Cavan on dual enrollment and Advanced Placement:
"You can't just drop AP onto dual enrollment. The community college system has studied it and said it can't co-exist …. Dual enrollment is college course. AP is basically a memorization and teaching-to-the-test operation. You can't do both things at same time, the content is different."
Trevor Packer, vice president of the Advanced Placement program, responds:
"It is actually very common for schools to offer both AP and Dual Enrollment: 70 percentt students to take the AP Exam as an external measure/validation of the quality of their learning, and 12 percent strongly encourage, but don't require, the dual enrollment students to take the AP Exam. We rarely, if ever, hear concerns about the co-existence of both programs in a school. So it was surprising to us to read of the situation … in which it appears the community college program is taking an antagonistic position in disparaging, without research or data, the AP program.
Co-existence of AP and Dual Enrollment is even more prevalent in Virginia than in the nation: 84% of schools offering AP in Virginia also provide dual enrollment opportunities. Of this 84 percent, 5 percent require the dual enrollment students to take the AP Exam, and 7 percent strongly encourage, but do not require, the dual enrollment students to take the AP Exam. So again, it's surprising that Mr. Cavan is taking such an antagonistic approach regarding co-existence of the two programs, when in fact such co-existence seems to be quite prevalent throughout Virginia."