Baron said that early college high schools are subject to the same graduation requirements as any traditional high school and added that associate degrees typically comprise general education courses that don't pigeonhole a student into a particular field of study.
"Those first two years are exploratory," he said. "The vast majority of the kids graduate with a general associates, and from there they can branch off in many directions."
Early college students, like all charter students, have the ability to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities at their local comprehensive school. They also have the option of pursuing private lessons in music and art. But considering how early college high schools target a low-income and ethnically diverse population, many students may not have the same opportunities as other students to pursue their interests outside of school.
Kessig said there's validity to the concerns of overspecialization, which is precisely why comprehensive schools offer a wide array of elective coursework. But she said the drawback of a scaled-down early college education could be viewed as an advantage, as students have access to the performances, exhibits, concerts and symposia of a college campus.
"They have access to that, so they're not devoid of opportunities," she said.
Edwards said the early college model is far from an ideal fit for every student. She said the state's comprehensive high schools are doing a great job of educating and preparing the bulk of Utah's students. But for a small segment of the student population, who may feel uncomfortable with the traditional system or who are interested in an accelerated and focused path to higher education, early colleges provide an answer.
"We don’t select our students — students choose to come here," Edwards said. "Whatever is best for the kids is what we’re hoping they’ll choose."
When asked what traditional schools could do, absent a bare-bones curriculum and a university partnership, to mirror the success of early college high schools, all of the administrators spoke to the strength of small class sizes and individualized, personal instruction.
"You can’t do what we do with 3,200 kids," Wilson said. "You do have to have a small school size, which translates into small class size where students receive individual attention."
Edwards agreed, saying that ITINERIS' only magic formula was the sense of trust teachers were able to cultivate with their students as a result of a smaller segment of the state's student population.
"I think it comes down to connections with students," she said. "If there isn’t a way to provide some smaller learning communities, then students don’t have that trusted adult in their lives year after year, and I think that’s what works."
Class sizes in Utah's public schools are among the largest in the country in a direct correlation with the state's dubious honor of spending the least per student of any state.
Financial limitations and logistical challenges will always be a reality in public education, but Wilson said a focus on creating a individualized and personal environment can go a long way, even when the funding doesn't.
"It’s the relationship between teacher and student, that small group, where you’re treated as equals and can ask a question at any time," Wilson said. "We can ask for more rigor and more work out of our students because of the relationships we have with them."
Kessig said that she was not aware of any discussions to expand the number of early college high schools in the state. She said with public education funding at its current level, maintaining the state's existing schools takes higher priority.
But she added that there was nothing stopping individuals or groups who intend to found charter schools from modeling their programming after the early college model.
When asked what could be done to mirror the success of the early college schools, Kessig said that it was the schools' sense of community that set them apart. She said comprehensive schools have already begun initiatives like schools within schools and extracurricular study groups to try and foster that same nurturing atmosphere.
"People are working toward that," she said. "Everybody knows what best practices are and everyone is in the process of trying to provide that at their school."
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