By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
Since its launch in May 2011, Middle College at Eastern Kentucky University has been the subject of debate for Madison County school board members and the residents they represent.
Middle College, a collaboration between Madison County Schools and EKU, allows high school juniors and seniors to receive both high school and college credits, all in a university campus setting.
Middle College students must take high school courses with the program’s two teachers. However, they also are required to take one college class per semester their junior year and two courses per semester their senior year.
While enrolled, a student has the potential to earn 18 hours of college credit before graduation.
Superintendent Tommy Floyd had envisioned the Middle College student to be academically capable but someone who “may feel disconnected to the normal high school setting” or “at-risk” of dropping out.
“Whatever the reason, these students might consider unplugging or becoming uninterested in the completion of high school and then the pursuit of a post-secondary diploma,” the superintendent said in a June 2010 column published in the Richmond Register.
Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday called Middle College a “first.”
“Sometimes with the first, you have to go boldly where no man has gone before,” Holliday said during the May 2011 press conference to formally announce the program.
In March of that year, board member John Lackey said he was in favor of the Middle College proposal, but was worried what might happen during the second year of the program.
“I’m willing to take a leap of faith,” he said, “but I’m skeptical that this is something we can continue.”
Just a few months later, when the Middle College proposal passed 5-0, Lackey called it a “solution looking for a problem” and a “terribly expensive experiment.”
In a September 2011 column, Richmond Register publisher Nick Lewis pointed out that three members of the board of education were employees of the university: EKU President Doug Whitlock, Betsy Bohannon, Associate Director for Student Judicial Affairs, and Mona Isaacs, Associate Vice President of Information Technology.
“Doesn’t that just scream ‘conflict of interest?’” Lewis wrote.
Although EKU does not charge for the use of its facilities in Burnam Hall, the university stood to gain tuition fees from the agreement.
The district paid nearly $25,000 in the 2012-13 school year in tuition fees, having negotiated a cheaper deal with EKU, said Erin Stewart, district spokesperson.
Instead of the $395 per credit hour rate of full tuition, the district pays the EKU Now rate of $65 per credit hour, she said. This is the same amount paid by other high school juniors and seniors who take classes at EKU.
At an August 2012 public hearing to consider raising the county property tax, only tax-hike opponents stood at the podium. Among tax-burdened citizens and members of the Madison County Tax Watch group, 11-year-old Katelyn Renfro stepped in front of the microphone twice. The second time she read from a prepared statement in which she commented on Middle College.
“All we know is that the program is very expensive,” she said. “If it was moved off EKU’s campus and back to the high schools … it would save us taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Katelyn is the daughter of Mary Renfro, who was elected to the school board in November.
So just what does it cost?
At its inception, Middle College was intended to serve 60 juniors and 60 seniors and cost $350,000. About $100,000 would come from a state grant and the remaining $250,000 from the district’s general fund.
The amount was to double the next year when a new class was added.
During a September 2012 school board meeting, Chief Academic Officer Randy Peffer said many of the juniors who participated in the first year of Middle College returned to their sitting high school to participate in athletics and senior-year activities.
Middle College does not have athletic or music programs, but students can seek permission from their sending high school regarding continuation in a sport or extra-curricular activity, according to the school’s “frequently asked questions” on EKU’s website.
During the 2011-12 school year, the daily average attendance to Middle College was 35.43, reported Debbie Frazier, the district’s chief finance officer.
The district paid $304,851.53 out of the general fund. It also received a $100,000 state grant and $65,022 in state on-behalf payments for Middle College.
State “on-behalf” payments are expenses the state incurs for employees’ health and life insurance and the state portion of teacher retirement, Frazier noted.
The total cost of Middle College last year was $469,873.76, or $13,262 per student.
During that same year, the total spent per pupil (including state on-behalf) was $7,015 for Madison Central students and $8,206 for Madison Southern students. Generally, per pupil costs will be less for a larger school, she said.
If the $100,000 Middle College grant were deleted from the equation, $10,439 is spent per Middle College student, over $2,000 more than their sitting high school counterparts.
In the current year, the district expects to come in under budget for Middle College, Frazier said. The district anticipates spending $200,000 or less from the general fund, in addition to the $100,000 state-funded Middle College grant
Two key factors contribute to this decline: Start-up costs in the initial year were not recurring in the second year (including technology purchases) and student selection criteria included an ACT benchmark qualifying students for reduced tuition to EKU.
High schools are staffed at 23 students per teacher, so the district would be required to employ the two teachers at Middle College whether the students were in the program or in a sitting high school. However, the principal and the secretary are additional positions necessary for the operation of the middle college, Frazier said. All four salaries are included in the total cost.
The district has 75 college classes available per semester and the goal is to have 25 juniors and 25 seniors utilizing those courses, Stewart said.
When statewide ACT scores were released in August, Middle College students came out on top. They achieved ACT scores up to three points higher than their peers at Madison Southern and Madison Central high schools.
The Middle College composite ACT score was 22.3, Central’s was 19.5 and Southern’s was 18.3. They also scored higher than Model Laboratory School students, who had a composite score of 21.4.
According to state rankings, Middle College students were only outperformed by five other high schools in the state.
When Peffer made the ACT score announcement to the school board in September, Lackey offered a theory on why Middle College students were achieving high scores.
“These kids don’t have stretch limousines to go to the prom with, they’re not distracted with athletics, there’s not drama there to fit in socially, and that’s the reason they’re doing so well,” he said. “I think our experiment with Middle College is showing a lot about how we raise scores across the board.”
However, the district should figure out why Middle College works, he said, “not just applaud the results that we’re getting.”
Lackey also urged administrators to find a way to duplicate the results in Southern and Central.
Board chair Mona Isaacs said one of the differences she has noticed is the “collegial relationships” Middle College students have developed with one another.
“They are truly a family-type organization,” she said. “They are bonded to each other and supported in ways many of them didn’t experience in high school.”
The Middle College student profile is a “capable individual who has become dissatisfied in a traditional high school setting,” said Middle College Principal John Fields.
The student does not value the experiences and customs of traditional high school and/or does not fit well or perform to his/her fullest potential in that setting, he said.
“These students also possess the maturity and independence to accept the challenges of this progressive school and is capable of participating in college classes,” Fields continued.
“The majority of students at Middle College, whether right or wrong, feel disenfranchised,” he said. “It is important to remember who these students are and where they come from.”
Many never participate in any sports teams, clubs or attend any school-sponsored social event. The majority of these students are the first in their family to attend college classes, he said.
Middle College students must complete an admission process and have a minimum ACT score of 18 (or a conditional 17) to enter the program, according to its website.
Although students do not incur any tuition fees or textbook costs, they must reimburse the college course fee to the district if they do not earn an A, B or C in the class.
But, Fields said the over-arching reason for the district’s success is that Middle College does not follow the “standard, assembly-line model of public education.”
“The non-traditional setting allows us to create an environment in which each student’s academic, social and emotional needs are addressed everyday,” he said.
Middle College students outperform traditional EKU students in the classes they had in common, Fields said. And in its inaugural year, students showed significant increases on the ACT.
Fields also pointed out that prior to entering Middle College, last year’s students displayed a high level of truancy in previous school years.
Absences from school for these students during their freshman year totaled 347.5 days combined; during their sophomore year they missed 451.5 days combined, he said.
During their first semester in Middle College, these same students missed 81 days combined, with a slight increase in absences the second semester, Fields said. Both numbers indicate a greater than 65 percent reduction in absenteeism from previous years.
“For these students, success comes because we have helped them find a way to re-engage in academics,” Fields said.
Crystal Wylie can be reached at email@example.com or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.