In the Inland Empire sprawling east of Los Angeles, the promise of the American-California Dream can seem as remote as the Pacific and the Sierras. For a generation, families have been streaming into these cul de sacs as fast as they could be built, seeking safer streets, lower costs, and better schools, making the Riverside-San Bernardino County combo the twelfth largest metropolitan region in the US and the fastest-growing in California. It also became California’s leader in housing foreclosures and unemployment during the recent recession. Like similar sprawls around American cities like Atlanta and Phoenix, the Inland Empire is suburban in housing and transportation patterns but classically urban in its demographics: majority-people of color, working class, with only one in four adults a college graduate.
In good times and not so good, the Inland Empire has epitomized what might be called the “Big Box” approach to American public secondary education: large, inter-changeable comprehensive high schools all built within a few years of each other. The typical inland high school is about 2,000 students, though there are several in the region with 3,000 or more. They all operate on that fine line between suburban boosterism and urban challenge that often comes with a metal detector in school entryways. In 2008, 21 inland area high schools ranked in the top 100 in California for producing dropouts.
Against this backdrop, John F. Kennedy Middle College High School was a revelation for me.
To get to JFK, you go to Norco College, a 10,000-student two-year institution that is part of the Riverside Community College District with a campus initially constructed in the 1990s – when the Inland Empire began booming – and completed around 2010. The high school occupies the entrance wing of the college, so that one of the first things I saw when I walked in the dome-like front door of Norco College was the JFK Middle College banner with its howling Tinderwolf logo.
The next visual is a café-lounge area with groups of young people sitting around, talking. Are they high schoolers or college students? I perched at one of the tables and eavesdropped for a bit. Two boys are riffing about a piece of music they’re collaborating on, a fusion of jazz and hip-hop that involves a saxophone and a computer. Turns out they are JFK juniors taking a Norco music production class together, using their high school “passing period” to get some college work done. One is sipping a Starbucks Venti and the other is nursing a Gatorade.
JFK was founded in 2006 as what’s known in California education-ese as “an alternative school of choice” in the Corona-Norco Unified School District, one of several districts under the umbrella of the Riverside County Office of Education. Corona-Norco has more than 50,000 students and 10 high schools including several other alternatives (like adult ed and independent study) that are less choices than last resorts for students who couldn’t quite make it in “real” high school.
JFK had a very different target student in mind: the middle-achieving student who gets lost in comprehensive high schools that must devote most of their attention to students on either extreme of the spectrum. JFK’s approach redefines “teaching to the middle.” The high-fliers across the district have ample Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs (these are “the AP and IB kids,” said JFK’s former Principal April Moore. Dr. Sarah Ragusa in now the principal at JKF ), while struggling students have whole phalanxes of specialists focused on working with students to graduation, in this age of high-stakes district accountability.
JFK is a fraction of the size of the district’s comprehensive high schools: 600 students in grades 10-12. There are no freshmen. “We want ninth graders to try traditional high school first,” Dr. Moore says. “Otherwise we have a lot of attrition among freshmen who focus on what they’re missing when they come here.” JFK has no football or other sports teams and no pep rallies either, though student athletes can play for their “home” high school while attending JFK. More noticeably missing from the school are cliques, which students and staff alike attribute to its intimate scale and open setting. “We have a real mix of students here, including plenty of self-identified nerds, preppy and gothic types,” says Dr. Moore. “But we all feel like family.”
It’s a family with high expectations for its targeted middle students. Through its application process, the school ensures that 70% of its new students are in the 2.0-3.5 GPA range, but the goal is for “all to end up high-achieving,” Moore says. Students are expected to complete 30 college credits – the equivalent of a year of college – by the time they graduate JFK, and at least a handful of extra-ambitious students each year knock off 60 credits to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.
Students are supported along the way by participation in AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a national college-readiness program that combines study skills, mentoring, inquiry-based reading and writing, and plenty of nudging on college exploration, test preparation, financial aid research and practice in self-advocacy. All JFK students take AVID as an elective, and the school provides ongoing college-focused guidance through another program called Excel, which features interactive goal setting exercises and checklists.
Most importantly, every student takes college courses across the way at Norco, where professors expect at least five high school students in each of their sections, and where JFK students take almost all of their electives. The college courses count for both high school and college credit, and the only costs JFK students bear are for books. When they graduate JFK, students can either matriculate fully into Norco or transfer their credits elsewhere. Recent grads have gone everywhere from the University of California system to Boston University to a conservatory to study opera.
JFK isn’t the first middle college program in the U.S. – Dr. Moore gives a shout-out to New York City’s LaGuardia High School as a forebear – though it is one of the oldest and largest. There are now 65 programs like it in California alone and more than 280 nationally, each with its own take on the model. Some call themselves “early college” rather than middle, and the debates around the differences between the two can get quite lively. (It either has to do with who the target students are – middle performers or high achievers? – or the number of college credits students are expected to complete by the end of high school – 30 or 60? It all depends on who you ask). Some early/middle college programs have foundation support – including substantial funding from the Bill & Gates Foundation – and others, like the P-TECH program in Brooklyn, have three-way partnerships with a higher ed institution and an industry, ensuring not just college credit but technical certifications as well. Together, these programs served more than 80,000 students across the country in 2014.
Policy-makers like the middle/early college model because it improves high school graduation, college-going, and college completion rates among historically underserved groups of students, particularly low-income students of color, and those who are the first in their families to attend college. Parents like these programs because they can lop off two years of college costs. But what my visit to JFK opened my eyes to was the unique lifeline that middle/early college represents for students in need of a different path.
One JFK student, Emily Garcia, remembers getting straight A’s in middle school but being bullied and overlooked at her 2,500-student comprehensive high school. “I didn’t want to be at school, so I stopped going one-two weeks at a time,” Emily says. “Teachers didn’t even notice I was gone. When I returned, they asked me for the homework as if I had been there all along.” Coming to JFK felt like coming home, Emily recalls. “If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, this is a place where everyone belongs,” she says.
Emily’s classmate Adam Lanahan, who was uncomfortable with “inappropriate behavior” and social pressures at his traditional high school, senses that JFK’s college focus makes the difference. “The atmosphere and environment at JFK is amazing. Instead of saying ‘let’s go out and party,’ people say ‘let’s go out and do homework,’” he says. Classmate Janineannema Algabre adds, “At JFK, we set college goals rather than high school goals.”
Which kind of makes you wonder: If a college-like atmosphere, small student body, and high expectations make a difference for students at JFK and early/middle college high schools like it around the country, why not just scratch the high school piece altogether? Does “Big Box High” have a place in the world of GenDIY?
Young people are taking control of their own pathway to careers, college and contribution. Powered by digital learning, “GenDIY” is combatting unemployment and the rising costs of earning a degree by seeking alternative pathways to find or create jobs they love. Follow their stories here and on Twitter at #GenDIY.
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