Classes give high school students a head start on college

Sep. 23—Freshman Alex Rogers says he plans to earn an associate degree as well as a diploma when he graduates from Muskogee High School in 2026.

He can earn the degree through Muskogee Public Schools' Early College High School Program, which which allows students to take Connors State College classes free of charge along with their regular classes.

"I feel like I've always wanted to be involved with something that challenged me," Rogers said. "I feel like we can get more out of this than in the normal classes, and it will really give us more of an advantage in the long run."

Rogers is among 28 MPS freshmen and 13 MPS sophomores participating in the new program, which is based at Rougher Innovations Academy.

Selection was based upon students' ability to persist in the program. The selection process consisted of a written application, essay and interview. Grades, attendance records and discipline reports were also considered.

Participants take advanced courses.

"I'm taking pre-AP geometry, pre-AP biology, basically pre-AP everything," said freshman Kyler Lemon, who seeks a medical career. "I feel like getting into this program and getting my associates degree would be really helpful if I want to go down that path, considering it's a very long process to get into medical school."

RIA Principal Jennifer Kiser said students take core classes and electives at their home schools — Muskogee High or the 8th and 9th Grade Academy. Sophomores will start a college strategy class at Connors in October, and freshmen will take one next next spring, she said.

"Next year, they will have two classes replaced with Connors courses," Kiser said. "They'll have two classes at Connors, and then their other two basic classes and their electives at the high school."

As juniors and seniors, the students will take four college-level classes each semester, she said.

"By their junior year, they will decide what they want their major to be at Connors, so they will come out with their associates degree at Connors, and I believe they have 70 different options," Kiser said.

In future years, only freshmen will start the program, she said.

Muskogee School Superintendent Jarod Mendenhall called Early College High School transformational.

"It was an exciting moment to see the response from our students and their families over the summer as they were accepted into the program," he said. "As I've visited with students in the program this semester, I am encouraged by their enthusiasm."

Connors President Ron Ramming said he met with Mendenhall in early spring and asked if he'd be interested in an early college program. Ramming said Union High School has had a similar program with Tulsa Community College.

"It's just concurrent enrollment that reaches down earlier into the high school grades," he said. "Right now, concurrent enrollment is defined by statute, for juniors and seniors who are eligible."

Connors offers concurrent enrollment for juniors and seniors tuition-free, but students must pay for fees and books, Ramming said. MPS pays for fees and books for students taking the Early College High School program, he said.

"Here, we're trying to find a way to partner between the two institutions to make this available to students where it would keep the cost down," Ramming said.

He said they met with the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, "and we have some flexibility in some of the admission criteria that we're able to offer to younger students."

"Regents want to focus on first generation, low-income students to make sure they have every opportunity to participate in the program," Ramming said. "That certainly increases the appeal of the program."

Connors wants to set up similar programs at other area high schools in the future, he said.

Participation in the state's system of concurrent enrollment has nearly doubled in the past decade, according to a recent media release from the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.

"In the last academic year, more than 14,600 students from Oklahoma high schools enrolled in concurrent courses, generating over 141,300 student credit hours," the release said.

The state's concurrent enrollment program allows high school seniors to receive a tuition waiver for up to 18 credit hours and juniors to have a tuition waiver for up to nine hours, according to the release. The regents' policy allows younger, high achieving students to do concurrent enrollment.

"By 2028, 66 of our state's 100 critical occupations will require a college degree. As demand for a college-educated workforce continues to grow, public higher education works continuously to increase efficiency and accelerate degree completion," said Chancellor Allison D. Garrett. "The concurrent enrollment program strengthens student preparation for college, reduces family college costs, and decreases the time required to complete a college degree."