These public school students graduate from high school, college at the same time

Junior and senior year of high school are no picnic for students at the Early College Academy, a joint program of the Kansas City school district and Metropolitan Community College – Penn Valley. Students like Gieze Moreno, seen here conferring with counselor Paula Coyote Schaaf, spend their last two years of high school on the community college campus. Moreno and other students are working on college applications, and they’ll be able to start college with two years already completed.

When graduation comes around for Kansas City East High school student Gieze Moreno next year, it will be a big celebration. Moreno’s family should be plenty proud, especially his father who had to drop out of high school himself. And Gieze will be among a growing number of Kansas City school district students to graduate not only from high school but also from Penn Valley Community College – at the same time.

Moreno is enrolled in the Early College Academy (ECA), a partnership between Kansas City Public Schools and Metropolitan Community College – Penn Valley. It’s designed for highly-motivated high school students to let them complete their junior and senior years, and their two-year community college associates degree the same month.

While it is fairly common for high schools to offer courses for college credit, this program is one of only two in the country where the students are on a community college campus most of the day. Students may return to their high schools for sports or other activities, but they spend most of their time at Penn Valley. Between classes, they can get together with other Early College Academy students to study or grab a snack.

On a typically hectic day last week, on-site coordinator and counselor Paula Coyote Schaaf was helping the students work on college admissions. In addition to being available as a fulltime counselor, she’s their college advisor as well. Last year, the program had a national merit scholar and this year, two students are applying to Harvard. They will have completed two years of college when they arrive at their new schools, saving time and expense. Schaaf says the program encourages graduates to get a masters degree in the next four years at college.

Although students face various difficulties at home (two are homeless), Schaff says she does all she can to make sure they can go to the college that’s the best match for them. “I want them to know their options and I don’t want money to stop them. I want them to apply to schools that are a good fit and then we’ll figure out how to pay for it.”

This year, the students in the program are from five different public high schools, and Schaaf says despite negative perceptions, “Kansas City has lots and lots of brilliant young people. We need cheerleaders for these kids. We need to stop the hype. They need more adults in their lives who will stick with them.”

Moreno says he’s looking at colleges that have good engineering and business programs. But for now, he’s enjoying the challenge of being in class with college students and learning how to communicate at that level.

“Everything is more serious here. In high school if you don’t work they don’t really care. Some of the kids there want to drop out. Here, everyone has a goal, everyone wants to get a good education.”

Being able to spend some time each day with the other Early College Academy students helps with that. “It makes you feel like you are not alone,” he says. “I feel like part of a team, and when a whole team works together it can win a game.”