One hundred twenty students walked across the stage at Meridian Public Schools commencement ceremony last week, but only 40 of them took home a diploma.
That’s because the other 80 students, two-thirds of the graduating class, have chosen to participate in Meridian’s fifth year program for a free first year of college.
“As an early college high school, we are set up to offer all students five years of education,” said Patrick Malley, Meridian’s high school principal. “During students’ fifth year, they take a full-time course load with one of our early college partners.”
The majority of students will take courses at Delta College. Others have opted to earn vocational credentials through the Greater Michigan Construction Academy or Bayshire Beauty Academy.
None of the students participating in fifth year have to step foot on the high school campus. For the most part, they are treated just like any other first year college students.
“This graduating class has already earned over 1,600 college credits during their junior and senior years,” Meridian Superintendent Craig Carmoney said. “Now, with so many of our students staying for fifth year, we estimate that over 90 percent of them will participate in postsecondary education.”
Meridian transitioned its high school to an early college four years ago, when the students in this class were just freshmen. According to Malley, the decision to become an early college made sense considering the work they were already doing: “The district had just joined the New Tech Network in an effort to improve student success after high school. We had the support of our teachers, parents, community and board to re-imagine our high school to improve outcomes. We saw alignment between our work with New Tech and the Early College movement, so we went for it.”
Meridian is one of only 22 early college high schools in the state of Michigan. Students receive funding for tuition, books and supplies. They also get monthly gas cards to help offset the cost of transportation and are assigned a laptop they can use in the classroom and take home. Additionally, they are linked with an Early College Coach who supports them through their first year college experience.
“Our goal is to remove as many barriers to college and career success as possible for these students,” Carmoney said.
What are the other third of the class not staying for the extra year doing next year? Most applied for an early graduation after just four years and are going on to a university, the military or to work in a family business. Because of the opportunities offered, only a few of them graduated undecided about their next step after high school.
“While our evaluation of the success of this program will have to wait until students finish their fifth year, the early results appear very positive,” Malley said. “By eliminating the major stumbling blocks to college success — funding, transportation, and support — we anticipate we’ll see our first year college completion rates more than double our 10 year average.”
According to Amy Boxey, dean of student transitions at Meridian, some students will graduate with over 60 credits at the end of the fifth year.
“Our goal is to send students to postsecondary programs once they are able to show us that they are ready,” Boxey said. “Students who demonstrated readiness their junior year went to college. More were ready and went to college during senior year. Now that these students are entering the fifth year, the opportunity has opened to all. We look forward to supporting so many of our students on their next step after high school.”