RIO RANCHO, N.M. — The Rio Rancho school board voted this week to start the process of establishing an early college program for its high school students.
Advocates say the program will save families thousands of dollars in college tuition and book fees because the district picks up the tab. The program would allow students to receive credit for their core high school requirements in math, English, science and history while also earning college credit.
Rio Rancho Public Schools currently offers students the opportunity for dual enrollment, meaning students can take a college course and earn both high school and college credit. However, the college credits earned only count as high school elective credits.
The district is working with the University of New Mexico West campus in Rio Rancho to develop the program. Students in the early college program would attend school on both campuses.
The board voted 4-0 Monday to start building the program that would start in the 2016-17 school year. Member Divyesh Patel was absent.
Board member Catherine Cullen said high school education was shifting and this was part of its future.
“I think if we don’t do it, charter schools will come in and do it,” she said. “We are not there yet to implement it, but I want to get there.”
Superintendent Sue Cleveland expressed strong support for the program but said she wanted to make sure it did not negatively impact local teachers or the district.
“This is the first step in a journey,” she said. “But when we jump in, we want to be able to swim not drown. We need to do this right.”
The program in the beginning will most likely be open only to a certain set of students, possibly using grades and performance on standardized tests as criteria for participation.
Some district staff have raised concerns about the idea. RRPS Advanced Placement teachers expressed concern that the early college education program would lead to fewer students enrolled in AP courses, which provide college-level work. Students can take a test at the end of each AP course and if they do well enough, earn college credit.
Veteran AP world history and English teacher Leslie Keeney spoke to the board a few weeks ago and said she was addressing the matter both as a parent who had a student that took math at UNM and as a teacher. She said while her son is very bright, he was not ready for the college environment. She said he struggled with things like answering his professor through email in a timely fashion and needed a lot of support from his parents to successfully complete his courses.
“Without intense support, this is bound to fail,” she said. “Where is that support going to come from?”
Both Cullen and board vice president Don Schlichte said they do not believe the program will hurt the district’s AP program and the early college program will serve a different set of students.
The district still must work out the details of the program, including who will be allowed to participate, how it will impact teacher evaluations, accountability and graduation rates, the cost and what kind of additional staff to hire.
Another important aspect, which staff has said will take at least a year, is articulating the college and high school courses. In other words, the high school staff will work with UNM instructors to ensure the college course is covering what students need to know in their core high school classes and aligning with district and state standards.