‘A model for rural communities’: Early college program could transform education in the Central Valley

September 3, 2019 /

In many rural communities, just getting kids to graduate from high school proves challenging.

But in McFarland, Bakersfield College and McFarland High School administrators are doubling down on efforts to ensure kids not only graduate with a high school diploma, but also take college courses and put them on a pathway to a degree.

“I can’t grasp how fortunate I am because, here in McFarland, you wouldn’t expect something big like this to happen,” said Isiah Figueroa, who began his freshman year of high school in August.

The Early Start Program at McFarland High is a mandatory, first-of-its-kind initiative in California that, if successful, could accelerate college graduation rates and ensure opportunities for more students from areas with historically low educational attainment.  

“Being in a rural community, the need here is higher,” said BC Early College Program Manager Kylie Swanson. “In cities, students go to college because it’s part of the culture. In rural areas, college isn’t part of the culture for a lot of families.” 

Starting this year, every student who enrolls as a freshman at McFarland High begins a dual enrollment tract where they take a course in career and life planning. Once completed, they must select a college pathway program.

McFarland High has a building on campus dedicated to the Early College program.

Bakersfield College President Sonya Christian, who has been recognized as a statewide leader in Guided Pathways and sits on the Student Centered Funding Formula Oversight Committee, called the program “a transformational model for rural communities.”

Most courses are offered during the regular school day, or after school at McFarland High, Swanson said. 

“That’s one of the key components, it’s not just giving them access to college but bringing college access to their campus,” Swanson said, adding that before graduating high school, every student must take at least nine units of college credits. 

“Nine units is a great introduction to college,” Swanson said. “If they finish nine units, we’re seeing more of a likelihood that they will enroll and finish college.”

In some cases, students can complete up to 60 college units and earn their associate of arts degree in subjects such as Education or Photography by the time they graduate high school. 

Other pathways give them general education or CTE certificates in trades like welding, industrial drawing, and the business of agriculture, providing students opportunities for well-paying industries blossoming in the Central Valley.

The goals for the program are to improve college-going rates in Kern County; increase student completion of certificates and degrees; save students and taxpayers money; and develop a highly-skilled workforce to improve our local economy, Christian said.

“Early College is a winning solution to some of the most pressing challenges we are seeing in the Central Valley and throughout California related to low educational attainment rates and debilitating poverty and unemployment,” said Christian. 

Community colleges throughout the Central Valley suffer from smaller budgets and as a result, lack more resources when compared to schools elsewhere, Christian said. 

“As such, we acknowledge the tremendous responsibility we have to implement sustainable programs and services that can be easily scaled, and for which system-wide solutions may advance the work at all 115 California community colleges,” said Christian.

The pilot project started with a grant BC received in 2013 to partner with The Wonderful College Prep Academy and offer an agricultural business pathway for high school students. By spring 2018, 38 students graduated with their associate of arts degrees. The following year, 94 more students graduated. 

Christian is one of many who has been very involved in the Early Start Program to ensure its availability to all students and success overall.

“I have spent my seven years as president building partnerships throughout the community – from the K-12 system to industry and employer partners,” said Christian. “Collectively, we have a vision to transform lives and improve the health of our communities through education.”

Christian’s role as chair of the California Educational Systems & Intersegmental Pathways Task Force has allowed for the Early Start Program to address some of the very same issues students come across, such as means for planning ahead.

BC has created a “mapper” tool, which allows students to see a layout of their program and requirements for each semester. 

“This roadmap makes clear each step students should take to complete their programs on-time and without accumulating excess units that can affect financial aid eligibility and time to completion,” said Christian. “The Early College team uses the mapper in scheduling and communicating with students about their programs of study.” 

Students enrolling this year said that although the idea of taking college courses is a bit nerve wracking, they’re ultimately excited for what it could mean for their futures. 

“I’m going to reach my goals faster and my career faster,” said freshman Alexia Santillo. “I’d like to become a pediatrician or something in the medical field. I hope I can reach as many credits as I can before I graduate and complete the pathway.”

Although incoming freshmen think the program is beneficial for their future, many expressed concern about the heavy workload. 

“We’re all athletes participating in a bunch of sports and so all the extra homework that’s going to be provided and all these college courses, I think it’s going to need a lot of really well-planned time management,” said McFarland High freshman Annika Fernandez, who wants to study journalism and ultimately become a sports reporter.

“If I find myself under pressure, I just tell myself, ‘You could do it,’” said Figueroa, who hopes to one day study law at Stanford. “I could do it, I can do whatever I set my mind to so just always have a positive mindset.” 

The Early Start Program could also accelerate the amount of time it takes for students to graduate from college, helping reduce glut in the California State University and University of California systems. Statewide, roughly 25 percent of students graduate from the CSU system in four years, according to data released in 2018.

Legislators have long characterized those graduation rates as stifling to the state economy, delaying students entering the workforce, increasing individual costs and reducing the number of spots available for new students in an already overburdened higher education system. 

State legislators took steps in recent years to address that glut, scaling back requirements for students to take remedial general education courses at California community colleges and fast-tracking them to college-level math and English courses based on their high school GPAs, rather than long-relied upon standardized testing. 

BC began using high school GPA data to place students into English and math courses in 2013. 

“(We) saw remarkable movement in student completion of these critical gateway courses required for student completion of BC degrees and transfer,” Christian said.  “At BC, we practice agility so we may quickly spring into action and create solutions. Failure is not an option.”

Kern Sol News is a youth-led journalism organization in Kern County. In their stories, reporters shine light on health and racial disparities in under-served communities across Kern. For more stories by South Kern Sol, head to southkernsol.org.

Jessica Manzo

Jessica Manzo is a youth reporter for South Kern Sol and a student at Cal State Bakersfield.