The structure of early college education in Utah varies from school to school, but all early college charters have a focus on science, technology, engineering and math, commonly referred to as STEM education. The need for greater exposure to STEM fields at the high school and even junior high level has become a key issue with state lawmakers and education officials, who have called for targeted investments aimed at getting students interested in those fields.
At the state's early college high schools, that exposure is already happening.
"We’re really trying to use our hands-on STEM programs to encourage students to explore and pursue STEM careers," said Jason Stanger, principal and director of InTech Collegiate High School in North Logan. "One thing we’re hoping is that they will look at STEM and determine whether that’s what they want to do or not."
InTech serves approximately 160 students, grades nine through 12, and partners with Utah State University. Last year, roughly half of graduating seniors left the school with between one and two years of college credit completed, and, Stanger was quick to point out, one-third of the student body are first-generation college students.
That disruption of intergenerational poverty is a key component of the mission of the Academy for Math, Engineering and Science, or AMES, which is located within the campus of Cottonwood High School. Of the school's nearly 500 students, 52 percent are ethnic minorities and 48 percent come from economically disadvantaged homes, according to principal Brett Wilson.
The school had a 97 percent graduation rate last year, with slightly more than half of the 2012 senior class being first-generation college students. Collectively, the senior class earned 1,094 college credits for an estimated tuition savings of $503,120 based on the costs of attending the University of Utah.
School administrators at AMES also try to keep tabs on students after they graduate. Of the 92 students who graduated in 2011, Wilson said 87 went on to successfully complete their first year of college.
Entrance into the school is highly competitive, with 600 applicants vying for 138 slots last year, Wilson said. Students are selected through a lottery system, with consideration given to preserve the school's mission of preparing undeserved and ethnically diverse students for college.
Wilson said the school occasionally receives pushback from parents who object to their student being left out do to an ethnically conscious lottery system. But he reaffirmed that preparing a diverse and underserved population of students for college education was a key component of the school's charter and a motivating factor in AMES's creation.
"We reserve the right to match the diversity of Salt Lake and/or Granite school districts," Wilson said. "We've maintained that low-income, highly diverse population."
He also said there are no current plans to expand the number of students admitted into the school, partly due to the spacial limitations of AMES's location within Cottonwood High School. But the demand for slots at AMES would suggest that more early college offerings are needed, and the school's success at graduating minority students is a sharp contrast to the state as a whole, where Hispanic students have the fourth-worst graduation rate in the country.
AMES's Ogden counterpart, the Northern Utah Academy of Math, Engineering and Science, or NUAMES, is in the process of seeking approval to expand by 250 students over the next two years. NUAMES currently has an excess of 150 applications for next academic year.
The remaining schools reported having relatively small, or no, waiting lists. For example, Intech has never turned a student away but has already reached application capacity for next year, creating a scenario where one more applicant will require the school's first waiting list.
A different experience
The acceleration that comes with an early college program is not without its tradeoffs. As a result of the heightened rigor and added coursework inherent with a college track, schools trim down to the bare academic bones, eliminating some traditional high school offerings like drama, music and extracurricular clubs and athletics.
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