They’re not the average exceptional students.
And that’s not an oxymoron.
MacKenzie Brunswick does her homework at a halfway house. After a dispute with her mother that left her homeless nearly a year ago, the 19-year-old should graduate from high school in June with 72 college credits, more than is needed for an associate degree.
David Shahata, born in Egypt, and Xiomara Valentin, born in Puerto Rico, speak English fluently as a second language. Their mothers brought them to America for the freedom to pursue a better education.
Kristin Harris grew up in a single-parent household. He knew his father for only a year before he passed away. The 14-year-old takes college courses while living with his mother, who never finished college.
They’re the first in their families to attend college and, statistically, the least likely among Ohio students to earn a degree.
They’re the kind of students who slip through the cracks or get swallowed up in inner-city schools. Yet each day they come together to form one of Summit County’s brightest groups of students.
They live and learn in Akron as students at Akron Early College High School.
Each day hundreds of Akron city students catch a bus, hitch a ride or take a walk to the Polsky Building on South Main Street, where the University of Akron spills over into downtown.
The building, one of three that house Akron Early College High School, marks an overlap in K-12 and higher education. Inside, 350 energetic Akron high school students mix with older, mature college students as they tackle both the rigor of college coursework and challenges of growing up.
With 58 percent of its students economically disadvantaged and a black population twice that of the state average, Akron Early College outperformed 727 of Ohio’s 740 public high schools last year.
It’s part of a national program that bridges secondary and post-secondary education, fostering independent students who attend college classes while knocking out a high school diploma. Students complete six combined years of high school and college instruction in four years. By graduation day, many have attained an associate degree at no cost.
The program’s major benefit — a cost-free college education — is also its greatest motivator. And the program’s greatest obstacle, administrators say, is asking adolescent middle school students to give up a normal high school experience. Though some students participate in sports at their home school, many forfeit the extracurricular activities and social circles that define a high school education.
Sophomore Jonathan Jones was a self-proclaimed “coaster” in middle school. He was content to be average. When he received his first marks at Akron Early College, like many others he faced the possibility of being thrown out.
“You don’t deserve a tremendous education if you don’t put as much into it as you do your life or your job,” Jones said. He began to see school differently. He stopped procrastinating and started “working more on education than my personal life.”
The fast-talking 17-year-old and former New Yorker wants to be a politician. But he has to get through that pivotal second year at Akron Early College first. In his junior year, he’ll be taking more college classes than high school classes, a transition that inspires maturity.
Jones and others soon learn that college students police themselves. Otherwise, they face returning to their respective neighborhood school.
“We have no discipline issue because, with the university, if you act up you’re gone,” said Cheryl Connolly, a 28-year teacher in Akron Public Schools and at the early college since 2007. “That allows us the freedom to just teach. I mean it’s just amazing. That was the thing that was just so exciting when we came here was how much we could accomplish in a year.”
Making new families
For many students like Brunswick — who lives at a halfway house — there is a benefit beyond graduating with $20,000 in college credits. She calls teacher Connolly one of her “million mothers.” The faculty and classmates for students like Brunswick and Harris — who never got to know his father — fill a void left by the loss of family.
“Attend a graduation and see the parents in tears. Some of them just never felt that their kid would ever go to college and attain an associate’s degree,” said Superintendent David James. “I don’t look at numbers and decimal points all the time. They’re important, but I think we need to take a different approach.”
The budget for the school is expected to top $2 million next year — a low cost for 350 high school students.
“I think the biggest challenge that we face is replicating aspects of that program into all of our high schools,” James said.
The program, originally funded by a one-time $400,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, accepts 100 students from across Summit County into the freshman class each year. Those students remain throughout unless they fail, withdraw or graduate. No one is admitted after the freshman year.
Most of the students must come from Akron and be the first in the family to attend college. About 20 percent come from nearby school districts and are not required to be the first in the family to attempt college.
Students are accepted through an application process that includes the 10 teachers in the program, a guidance counselor, Principal Marilyn Bennett and stakeholders at UA. The application includes grades, test scores, attendance record, disciplinary history, six recommendation letters and an essay question that probes a student’s thoughts on how the Akron Early College will help achieve a career goal.
Administrators say students who survive the rigorous process want to be there.
Learning to work hard
“By applying, we set ourselves up saying, ‘We want better for ourselves. We want this opportunity to do well for ourselves,’ ” said Brunswick, who wants to be a special education teacher. She worked at Sam’s Club last summer after moving to the homeless shelter. Now, she baby-sits between night classes at UA and the required high school courses in the morning.
Classmate Harris, a freshman, also exhibits high ambition. His career goals begin with becoming a police officer, but he says president of the United States isn’t out of the question.
He recognizes the importance of maturity.
“I can honestly say that I should have been kicked out of here first grading period,” Harris said of the low marks he received in the fall. He had to get organized and make the leap from middle school classes that had built-in study time.
“They actually teach for the whole period here,” Harris said.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com.