Gila Community College should partner with Payson Unified School District to take advantage of a new state law that would make it possible for top students to earn a college degree by the time they graduate high school, lobbyist Mike Gardner recently urged the GCC board.
Not many voters or educators noticed earlier this year when the Arizona Legislature passed HB 2731, which made such a system possible, said Gardner. Now, the state is looking for colleges and school districts to serve as the guinea pig for a potentially revolutionary new system.
The system would allow high school sophomores to take a high school graduation test that would give them a “Grand Canyon Diploma.” That would make it possible for the students to start taking community college or vocational classes — either on the high school campus or at a nearby community college.
“This fits in with the needs of rural Arizona to find a low-cost alternative for those first two years of college,” said Gardner, a former lawmaker who heads the lobbying firm Triadvocates.
Payson High School and Gila Community College already have a joint operating agreement that gives students college credit for some classes taken on both the high school campus and the GCC campus. Many juniors and seniors at the high school, for instance, take English 101 at GCC to fulfill their basic college composition requirement.
The new system, dubbed “Move On When Ready,” would ramp up those existing relationships throughout the state.
The system would rely on the development of state-approved board examinations, similar to the SAT tests many colleges now use to decide which students to admit. If students passed those board examinations and certain core academic classes, they could spend their junior and senior years in high school taking college classes or vocational classes.
HB 2731 clears the way for districts to voluntarily set up pilot programs to work out the details of the new system.
The legislation didn’t resolve crucial details — like whether the state would continue to pay high schools for students actually taking classes at the community colleges or vocational programs. The legislation also doesn’t spell out how much money the community colleges would get for students in the program taking classes on their campuses — or taught at the high schools by community college faculty.
“We still have to determine how they will fund those students,” said Gardner.
“Right now, Move on When Ready doesn’t treat the community colleges fairly. Obviously, they can’t double fund that enrollment — so they’re still tweaking the funding formula. But we want those students to come to our campus when they’re ready to move onto the community college level,” he said.
The potentially far-reaching reform essentially slipped through under the radar screen of many education advocates, focused this year on preventing deep cuts in K-12 and university funding.
Arizona Rep. Rich Crandall pushed it through, with backing from the Center for the Future of Arizona, part of a national educational reform group.
The group hopes that the proposal will help boost the nation’s high school graduation rate, stuck at just over 70 percent for decades. The persistently low graduation rate has proven especially troublesome in rural Arizona.
Advocates hope the new system could also ensure that college-bound students don’t waste their junior and senior years. Surveys suggest that some 60 percent of college freshmen have to take remedial English and math courses.
In districts like Payson, with dwindling funds for Advanced Placement and other programs for top students, many college-bound students say they’re not fully challenged during their senior years and sometimes don’t write a single paper all year.
The new system could also make college more affordable, especially in rural areas like Payson.
Many otherwise qualified Payson students now don’t continue on to college in part because they can’t afford to attend college where they must cover room and board in addition to the nearly $9,000 annual tuition bill.
Advocates hope the new system might also dovetail with vocational training programs, which have faltered for lack of funding in many districts in recent years. In theory, students could essentially get their high school diploma at the end of their sophomore year and then devote two years to vocational training.
Gardner said GCC and Payson High School could find themselves ideally positioned to explore the possibilities of such a partnership, especially with the college’s focused programs in nursing, fire sciences, business and other certificate-granting programs.