Early college program helps all parties

New Heights Charter School graduation in May. (Photos: New Heights)

When New Heights Charter School of Brockton (Massachusetts) came to Massasoit Community College about setting up a partnership a few years ago, officials at the college were delighted.

“We’d been investing in early college for over 14 years,” said Massasoit Provost Deanna Yameen. “At New Heights, every student would be college-ready – period.”

In May, 46 students – more than half the senior class – at New Heights graduated with an Associate in Arts – Liberal Arts Transfer degree from Massasoit. The degree will allow them to transfer to many colleges and universities as juniors.

That’s no small achievement for a public school in Brockton, where 80% of students are from low-income families, according to Omari Walker, New Heights executive director and founder.

“There weren’t many people when we first started who were willing to partner with us,” Walker said. “They thought, there’s no way this small group of urban kids could ever be college-ready.

“But Massasoit, from the beginning – and Deanna was instrumental – said, ‘Your kids can do this, we want to work with them.’”

Everyone was motivated to make the program succeed. It starts with New Heights, which gives students a great deal of support, both emotional and academic.

Other than residential requirements, “admission is 100% lottery-based,” Walker said. “So we are blind in who we accept.”

Fifteen percent of students speak English as a second language, and 98% are Black or Brown, he said. The majority are from low-income households.

Everyone goes to college

“We tell them from the day they enter, they’re college material,” Walker said. “Every single one of them goes to college, even if they have a learning disability.”

New Heights uses two placement tests, Accuplacer and ALEKS (Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces), to assess students’ current abilities. For instance, the math portion can tell the school whether a student tests into Statistics, Algebra I or Pre-Calculus.

By the end of their second year, 33 out of 40 ninth and tenth graders tested into college classes, Walker said. The Massasoit dean stopped the New Heights bus on the way to the college campus and had lunch with them to find out how they did that.

New Heights students take two math classes a day, Algebra I and a math lab where they use a computer and lessons through a headphone, progressing at their own speed.

“They could go beyond what was happening in the classroom,” Walker said. “One sixth-grader at Christmas time tested into Calculus. He went into college Algebra as a sixth-grader. As a seventh-grader, he’s a full-time college student.”

Provost Yameen appreciates that New Heights is willing to build its curriculum with Massasoit so it meshes with the college courses.

“They teach our developmental courses – reading, writing math courses that don’t carry college-level credit,” she said. “They use our curriculum, our assessments.”

Blending on campus

New Heights Charter School student William Kimani chats with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker when he visited the school this spring.

When New Heights students come to the Massasoit campus, no one knows they’re not regular Massasoit students, Yameen said.

“They have the same rights as every Massasoit student,” she said.

William Kimani, a rising senior at New Heights, took all his classes at Massasoit when he was in tenth grade.

“I loved it,” Kimani said. “I joined the business club, I used the library often.

“The free tutoring available on campus helped out immensely,” he said. “At Massasoit, I was more supported than I would have been at a regular high school.”

Kimani used the Massasoit library to learn how to research papers and tapped the college’s Academic Resource Center for help going over his papers and math problems. He appreciated being able to meet with professors in their office hours.

Joining their students

When New Heights students take the bus to Massasoit, their teachers come with them. The teachers sit in on the classes with their students and learn what the professor is teaching, then have support classes at the high school the next day to reinforce the concepts. If papers are due in the college class, the New Heights teacher checks them first.

“We know what’s happening in the classroom,” Walker said. “We’re checking the work prior to the next class. That’s the secret to our success.”

Massasoit helps by trying to meet New Heights students’ individual needs.

“We can take a student and give them a customized schedule,” Yameen said. “Since we have so many classes, we can be really flexible.”

Working in sync

The two schools work together closely.

“We are written into their charter,” Yameen said. “We went multiple times during the year to talk to them about the curriculum.”

A team from both schools meets at least once a month to discuss whether any changes are needed. There have been several since the program started five years ago. One example:

“Once students came in, we decided we don’t want to give students so many heavy reading loads when they already have a lot for their high school classes,” Yameen said. “So we had an interim acting class where they act out scenes.”

Massasoit administrators also learned they had to move faster in math for the Massasoit students, many of whom excelled in that area.  

During the Covid lockdown, classes at Massasoit were remote for all students, including those from New Heights.

“It was kind of like hitting a wall,” said Kimani, who spent his junior year taking Massasoit classes online. “It did hurt, but eventually you get the swing of it.”

Yameen gave a more positive assessment.

“What I’ve heard from our faculty is that New Heights students have fewer issues than the rest of the students,” she said. “We’ve built in so much support for New Heights students. [The professors] know those students as individuals. They’re educated to be independent.”

And they are motivated to do well at Massasoit so they can get graduate from high school with an associate’s degree, paid for by the state of Massachusetts.

Myriad benefits

The state created an Early College Initiative in 2017. The New Heights/Massasoit partnership was one of the first five funded as part of the program. The program’s purpose was “to give thousands of Massachusetts students, especially first-generation college-goers, access to college completion and career success,” according to the state education department. The target population was low-income students and people of color.

In addition to the equity benefits, early college programs are cost-effective, according to research by the American Institutes for Research. Looking at programs in five states (not including Massachusetts), the study found that early colleges cost about $3,800 more per student than a traditional high school. But the estimated return on investment was an average of $33,709 in increased lifetime earnings for each student.

Adding extra tax revenue and decreased spending on public services, the study estimated a total return on investment of 15 to 1.

That’s plenty of extra payoff for the state and the taxpayers. For high school students who can graduate with an associate degree, the benefits are clear: a chance to enter a four-year college as a junior debt-free.

One of this year’s New Heights graduates will start at the University of Pennsylvania this fall as a junior. Two others will attend Northeastern University to study computer science.

Massasoit Provost Deanna Yameen could not be more pleased.

“The night of that graduation was one of the proudest moments of my professional life,” she said.

About the Author

Joan Mooney
is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and a lecturer at the University of Maryland.