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West county, Windsor schools piloting new dual enrollment college program

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Shane Johnson, 17, had a hard time staying on top of his schoolwork his first two years at El Molino High School, and by the time he was a senior this year, he had concerns about whether he could go to college.

The Santa Rosa native has attention deficit disorder and would procrastinate so much his grades suffered, despite testing into honors and AP classes, and having a genuine passion for subjects like chemistry and physics.

A dual-enrollment initiative being piloted this fall in two Sonoma County school districts has given Johnson a new option for postsecondary education. It’s called MicroCollege, and offers seniors a chance to return for a fifth year where they can take up to 10 transferable college courses in settings that prize small groups and one-on-one instruction.

West County Union High and Windsor Unified school districts were the first in Sonoma County to adopt it this year, allowing Honors Pathway, the Oakland-based higher education startup behind the 3-year-old program, to establish an instructional site in Santa Rosa. It could now have even more appeal for local graduates rethinking their plans for the fall with California universities extending online instruction to safeguard against the coronavirus.

With hours of one-on-one coaching and tutoring offered each day, the option offers Johnson an ideal opportunity to shore up his academic foundation and complete some general-ed freshman courses before he takes the leap to a four-year university.

“I think that structure is going to work wonders for me,” Johnson said.

MicroCollege gives students a regimented daily routine with small-group classes taught in the morning by faculty from a nearby college, said Honors Pathway CEO Gene Wade. In the afternoon is a “learning lab” where students receive up to 500 hours of intensive tutoring and mentoring over the course of the 11-month program.

Students are held harmless in a grading system of ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C’ and ‘not yet,’ Wade said. If they don’t pass, they don’t get credit for the course.

Tuition, books and materials are all free. Students even get a laptop they can keep after the program.

“The initial response was it’s too good to be true,” said Lisa Saxon, Windsor’s director of educational services. “But I think through the unique way Honors Pathway identified how to utilize the funding for continuing education for school districts, it was a way no one had thought of.”

MicroCollege is possible using a combination of philanthropy dollars and redirected California education funding. School districts hand over their state daily attendance funds for each student since they are still enrolled at the high school as a fifth-year senior. The difference is they are taking courses at a local MicroCollege site, which Wade likened to a coworking space.

The average cost to educate a Sonoma County student in 2018-19 was more than $13,600, according to figures from the state Department of Education. MicroCollege is anticipating at least 60 students enrolling in the fall.

Wade said the inspiration for the dual-enrollment initiative was to help first-generation minority students uncover new paths beyond high school and to improve wider college readiness, a growing challenge nationwide.

Only 27% of 2018 graduates met the college readiness standard in all four core subjects, math, reading, science and English, according to ACT, the standardized test administrator.

“It’s all driven by effort,” Wade said. “We’ve dialed into the idea that let’s give kids that one year to understand the transition, and internalize what it takes to be successful. Then, they apply for college.”

Given all the uncertainty facing this year’s graduates, both the Windsor and west county school districts have expanded MicroCollege as an option for every senior, recognizing that students might not want to start their college careers taking online courses at home.

Since classrooms have a 10-to-1 ratio, MicroCollege can social distance more easily, and potentially have more in-person options.

That benefit, plus the growing appeal with college-bound graduates, has forced the program to revamp its offerings and add more rigorous subjects so every student gets challenged, Wade said.

El Molino High School counselor Marilu Saldana believes MicroCollege has a chance to catch on if it can deliver on its promises. As more students and families weigh their options for attending college during a pandemic, a free boot camp close to home is appealing, she said.

“Anybody that may have challenges coming up in the fall if classes are going to be all-online, we’re recommending to have a backup and this could be the backup plan,” Saldana said. “This is new in the community, but I think the timing is perfect.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com.

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