Lagging behind rest of Montana, SD2 looking for ways to boost dual enrollment

School District 2’s struggles to launch a successful college credit dual-enrollment program for high school students is probably best illustrated by Mikayla Burpee. 

Burpee, who was a sophomore at West High last year, found SD2’s archaic dual-enrollment program — University Connections — so cumbersome and unsupported by school staff that she dropped out of high school at the end of the year.

She had struggled to get staff at the school to approve her college course-laden schedule for the second semester of her sophomore year and at one point they explained to her that pursuing the schedule could leave her ineligible to graduate. Something she found to be absurd. 

“I was taking college-level courses,” she said. 

So her parents pulled Burpee from school and registered her with the county as a home-school student. Now 17, and technically a high school junior, Burpee takes a full class load at Montana State University Billings.

“It was pretty weird at first,” she said with a laugh. But she has loved the experience.

It was the chance to take college-level music classes last year that drew Burpee to the University Connections program. She’s now taking all general-education classes at MSUB and plans to finish up next year having earned both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. 

And while it’s been a great experience so far, it’s left her disappointed with SD2’s approach to the program. 

“I hope that they make it easier,” Burpee said. 

Identifying the problem

SD2 is the largest school district in the state with roughly 5,200 high-schoolers. But among the state’s largest high schools, Senior, West and Skyview have the lowest rate of students participating in dual-enrollment programs. 

The University Connections program sends SD2 high-schoolers to college campuses for their dual-credit classes. Other districts in the state have experimented and found success with offering college classes in the high school, taught by high school teachers who have been certified by the college to teach the course. 

Sentinel High School in Missoula, with 1,100 students, has 187 taking some kind of college-credit course. Combined, SD2’s three high schools have 55. 

School officials in Billings are well aware of the lag between SD2 high schools and the other schools in the state. They began working this year to try to improve its dual-credit enrollment programs and educate its students to the opportunities open to them. 

“We’re very supportive of this,” said Kathy Olson, executive director of school leadership support. “We just need to figure out how to make it work.”

First steps

She and Brenda Koch, SD2’s other executive director of school leadership support, believe they’ve taken the first steps in that direction.

They’ve been meeting with representatives from MSUB and the Billings Education Association, SD2’s teachers union, figuring out a way to make it work. 

“Everybody is wanting to move forward,” Koch said. “People see the need.”

They’re hopeful that by this fall, they’ll have a new program in place that will offer college classes to SD2 students at the high schools. Those classes will be taught by high school teachers who have the credentials to qualify, a nod the Billings Education Association.

“We have to delicately balance this,” Olson said. 

Years ago, SD2 launched a pilot program to test the waters of dual enrollment, but it quickly spun apart over concerns about teacher qualifications and losing enrollment to area colleges. 

Olson said union leaders at the time pushed back on the idea. They worried that sending high-schoolers to colleges to take classes would drop enrollment at the high schools, possibly impacting their jobs.

Union and district officials today hope this attempt to relaunch the program will avoid those pitfalls. They’ve worked to model it on successful programs in other parts of the state. 

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In Helena, school leaders launched a similar effort in 2006. Greg Upham was principal at Helena High School at the time.

“I went over and met with the dean at Helena College,” he said. “I was after core-level courses that freshmen in college would have to take.”

The dean was open to Upham’s pitch and by 2007, Helena High was offering basic, college-level courses for its students, taught by teachers qualified with the material and using Helena College curriculum. 

“Helena (College) was great with us,” he said.

Upham is now assistant superintendent for Helena Public Schools and oversees the dual-enrollment program districtwide. Helena High has the second-highest dual-credit enrollment in the state with 110 students participating. 

Many graduate with 12 to 15 credits earned, the equivalent of one semester of college. 

But the beauty of the program, Upham said, was the way it opens college as a reality to students who otherwise wouldn’t have considered it. 

“It’s created opportunities for kids who wouldn’t have had those opportunities before,” he said. 

Playing catch-up

In a 2010 study performed by the University of Oregon System, researchers found that “dual credit students have a higher college participation rate than high school graduates overall.”

It also noted that, “dual credit students who go on to college continue to the second year at a higher rate than freshmen who enter college without having earned dual credit.”

It’s one of the reasons districts across the state have begun to kick-start or bolster existing dual-enrollment programs. 

Over in Missoula, Trevor Labosky, executive regional director of teaching and learning for Missoula Public Schools, sees it as a necessity. 

“Being able to offer it is sort of our duty,” he said. 

Like Upham, Labosky worked first as a principal bringing college-credit courses to his high school before spreading it out through the district.

Sentinel High School, which has the highest dual-enrollment rate in the state, sits next door to Missoula College, making it just a little easier to connect students with college classes. 

But even Sentinel’s 187 students isn’t enough, he said. And School District 2 has miles to go. 

“There are plenty of states where students graduate (high school) with an associate’s degree,” Labosky said. “We’re behind.”

In Billings, opportunities for partnering with college abound. SD2’s Career Center sits adjacent to MSUB’s two-year City College. MSUB is centrally located downtown and Rocky Mountain College is just a couple of miles from Senior High. 

SD2 officials continue to meet with representatives from the colleges and are working to figure out just what classes would be most appealing to high school students and how they’ll be taught. 

Like Kathy Olson and Brenda Koch, BEA President Scott McCulloch is convinced SD2 can make dual enrollment work. 

“This program benefits kids and that’s the bottom line,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we need to do.”

Making college courses available to high school students increases the rigor of their education, he said. And every time they increase that rigor, they find that the students can handle it. 

“We can demand more of our students,” he said. 

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