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Early College Gives High School Students a Head Start

high school students in hcc's early college program

Update: Check out these highlights from the event, courtesy of Howard County Public School System.

At this year’s Howard County high school graduations, one group of students will cross the stage having already completed one year of college.

These students are part of the first cohort of Early College, a unique program developed as a partnership between Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) and Howard Community College.

“These young students have been given tremendous opportunities to learn, right in their backyard,” said Bill Barnes, curriculum director for the Howard County Public School System, who along with his colleague, Caroline Walker, has played an instrumental role in the development and implementation of the Early College program. 

The idea to develop an Early College program in Howard County had been percolating for a while. Two times per year, leaders from Howard Community College and HCPSS convene for a discussion centered around innovation, partnership, collaboration and the expansion of new programs and resources for people who reside in the county. There was a clear consensus that dual enrollment programs, which allow students to take classes at their high school and the community college at the same time, provide tremendous benefit for students both academically and personally. 

In 2013, the Maryland General Assembly passed the College and Career Readiness and College Completion Act, encouraging community colleges and public school systems to create more advanced placement and accelerated learning opportunities. Along with that encouragement was the availability of state-funded grants to help schools develop and implement early college programs.

“Suddenly, we had the money to pursue the ideas we’d been discussing for a long time,” said Cindy Peterka, vice president of student services at HCC. “The state was particularly interested in supporting the development of Early College programs within the cybersecurity and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. These are key areas of focus at HCC, so we were confident that we had strong people, facilities, and technologies to be successful.”

Early College Cybersecurity was the first program to launch. Students take classes at the HCPSS Applications and Research Laboratory during their sophomore and junior years of high school. As seniors, students take classes full-time on the HCC campus.

While the cybersecurity program is open to all high school students in Howard County with an interest in the field, a separate Early College STEM program was designed specifically for students at Oakland Mills High School. 

Shortly after these cybersecurity students graduate from high school, the first cohort of Early College STEM students will step onto the HCC campus for their senior year of high school. The timing could not be better. Both groups of Early College students will be among the first to experience the advanced learning opportunities provided by the new Science, Engineering, and Technology Building, such as state-of-the art science labs and dedicated cybersecurity laboratories.

Barnes also notes that the Early College program prepares students for college, beyond just academic course work, “They’ve experienced being on a college campus with other students and faculty, as well as the rigor of taking college-level courses. All of that will combine to make for smooth and meaningful transitions as they move on to four-year schools.”

Lisa Hairston-Jones would tell you that the Early College program has done exactly that and so much more for her daughter, Julian. Being part of the Early College program has accelerated Julian’s timeline for earning college credit, but perhaps more importantly, it has opened doors for her to make connections and gain practical work experience in her intended field.

“Julian has had these amazing experiences at the age of 16 that she otherwise would not have had until much later in life,” said Hairston-Jones. “She has worked as an intern at some of the area’s most reputable security and technology firms. She has learned a lot of new skills and gets to work hands-on with people who are young and successful, and making it in the field where she wants to be. She is very motivated and inspired, at a very young age, as a result.”

When Julian graduates from Marriotts Ridge High School this spring, she will do so with one year toward her associate degree in cybersecurity already completed. 

“I have grown so much as an individual and feel like, even though I am young, I have a firm grasp on what my future holds,” Julian said. “I know what I want to do, and I am so focused as a result.”

Aaron Alder, admission and academic advisor at HCC, has built relationships with many of the Early College students, and says the positive impact of the program is clear, but the high school students are not the only people who are benefitting.

“The faculty say it’s easy to pick out the Early College students in their classes, not because they are younger, but because they are the ones keeping the class on pace,” said Alder, who supports recruitment, application, and academic placement testing processes, and also serves as the primary academic advisor for all Early College program students. “They are bringing everyone else up because they are excited to be on campus and learning.”

Peterka anticipates that dual enrollment will remain on the agenda for the foreseeable future. Moving forward, she believes there will be a focus on expanding the Early College program so that students interested in other fields of study can participate, plus map out curriculums that can be offered to students hailing from more public high schools.

“We have always worked closely with the county school system but this program has united us further,” said Peterka. “All of the players have been willing to rethink how young people learn. It’s about innovation, flexibility, and keeping quality education at the heart of everything we do. There are so many possibilities as we think ahead to how we can offer more advanced placement and dual enrollment options for our students.”

Learn more about Early College. Read the stories of three Early College graduates: Noah, Julian, and Trevor.

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