From The Comfort Of Their Own Classrooms, RI High School Students Get A Taste Of College

Mar 18, 2016

Thousands of Rhode Island high school students are now earning college credits without stepping foot onto a university campus. 

That’s thanks to a state-wide initiative that brings college level coursework right to them. The courses are free, and enrollment is growing.

At Central Falls high school, English teacher Deloris Grant hands out copies of Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess.”

“You’re going to have to read the poem at least two or three times,” Grant said to the class.

Grant teaches a college level literature course to a room full of high school seniors. The class is part of a push championed by Governor Gina Raimondo to get more students ready for college.

“When you get your poem next year when you are in school, in college, the professor is not going to go through the poem with you,” said Grant. “Okay? You will be required to read it. You are going to read through things that are so hard, you’re going to want to give up.”

But Grant challenges her students not to give up. She gives them some questions to think about as they read the poem.

“Is this a dramatic monologue? Why do you say so? How do we know it’s a dramatic monologue? How do you know there’s only one person speaking?”

Grant said this type of close reading is what college professors will expect from these students when they get to campus. She wants to make sure they have all the tools they need.

“I am trying to get them to read through the poem, analyze the poem, pull apart the rhyme scheme, look at who the speaker is,” said Grant. “To begin analyzing difficult text on their own, and asking questions.”

Some of the students in Grant’s class will be the first in their families to attend college, if they continue their studies after high school. 18 year-old Oussey Nouseck is one of those students, He comes from Senegal, West Africa.  English is Nouseck’s third language, but he said this is the first English class that really challenged him.

“From freshman year up until eleventh grade, all my English classes were easy. Just regular classes, you know?”

Nouseck is a tall, lanky senior with a buzz cut. He’s not the loudest kid in the classroom, but when he speaks about the class, you can feel his excitement.

“Every single day you learn something new,” said Nouseck. “Be it a new word, a new poem. It basically challenges you to sharpen your communications skills, which is definitely helping me right now.”

Fellow student, Helen Magana, said she’d never heard of many of the authors they’re studying this year, like today’s poet Robert Browning. But she believes it’s part of preparing for the success in college.

“I feel that taking this course will help me when it comes to analyzing the types of stories that college professors will give us, because I know they will be harder reads than what we have here,” said Magana. “And I feel that all the essays we write, it’s just more and more experience as to how I can find a way to write an essay well.”

Grant’s class is what people in education circles call dual or concurrent enrollment. That means a college level course tailored to high school students. Teachers leading these courses, like Grant, have at least a master’s degree in their field of study. They meet with college professors at the beginning of every school year as they plan their lessons.

Holly Shodoian oversees the dual enrollment program for Rhode Island College.

“One might think that, well oh, because they are taking it in high school, that everyone gets an A,” said Shodoian. “That’s absolutely not the case. There’s a broad range of grades in terms of what students earn, or the level that they’ve achieved.”

RIC and other public colleges in Rhode Island have agreed to give credit to students taking these courses in their high schools. Shodoian said that can add up to thousands of dollars in savings on college tuition.

“Anything that can help our students reduce how long it takes to earn a degree, or the costs, and the amount of debt someone might accumulate,” said Shodoian. “If they can do that in high school, either for no cost at all, or for a very small amount, I think is a great benefit.” 

Right now the state budget is covering the cost of these courses. Most students are taking them in their high schools, some travel to local college campuses. Shodoian hoped the experience will encourage more high school students to make college the next step.

“I think sometimes for a student to be able to say, ‘I finished this course.’ I already have four college credits. Maybe I am college material. I think that’s a wonderful thing for someone saying, college might be possible for me.”

Central Falls senior Oussey Nouseck said college is more than a possibility for him. And after taking the dual enrollment course, he feels ready.

“I mean I don’t think college is going to be hard for me. Because you don’t only challenge yourself, but it actually gets you ready. It gets you ready for college and for life,” said Nouseck. “So yeah, I feel prepared.”

Whether Nousek is prepared will be a question for his college professors to answer next year.

But a study out of Columbia University found high schoolers who take dual enrollment courses are more likely to succeed when they get to college.

The Rhode Island program currently enrolls more than 3,000 students. And state officials say many school districts like Central Falls are looking to expand their course offerings for next year.