On her first day of high school, 13-year-old Emma Lein had all the normal anxieties and hopes.
She wanted to join clubs and make new friends. She worried about the workload and time management.
The only thing that stood out was her location: 17th and Spring Garden. Community College of Philadelphia.
Emma and about 130 freshmen started classes Tuesday morning at CCP as part of a new program, Parkway Center City Middle College. It’s a long name for a simple idea. The students at Parkway Center City will take high school courses while enrolled as full-time community college students. They’re starting this summer to get acclimated before diving in full time this fall.
Four years from now, they’re expected to graduate with a diploma as well as either an associate’s degree or some sort of career certification.
“It makes me feel like I actually did skip a few grades,” Emma said. “But I get the experience that not a lot of people get. And I get that for free.”
That’s the upshot for students in the program. Ideally, when they graduate, they’ll only have to pay for two more years of college before earning a bachelor’s degree.
The initiative will, however, cost the School District of Philadelphia about $4 million over the next four years. Superintendent William Hite started a similar initiative in his prior post running the public schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland. But Parkway Center City Middle College is the only program of its kind in Pennsylvania, he said.
Over the next four years, Parkway Center City Middle College will essentially replace what had been Parkway Center City High School. As students in the Middle College progress through the grades, students learning under the old model will phase out.
Like its predecessor school, Parkway Center City Middle College is a special-admissions school that takes applicants from all over the city.
Emma commutes from Northeast Philadelphia, taking the 18 bus and Broad Street Line subway during an hourlong commute. Initially, her mother was skeptical, preferring she pick a more prominent magnet school such as Central High School.
“She found out about the college course, and she was really happy about that because we’re going to save a lot of money and also get the college experience,” she said.
Getting a start on world exploration
Caleb Lee of East Oak Lane spent his elementary and middle school years at Cedar Grove Christian Academy. He chose the new middle college option so he can spend less time in college and “more years … exploring the world.”
Caleb said he’s never traveled farther than Florida, but hopes someday to visit Europe.
“If you really try hard, they said that you can really just ease past this program and get your college credits, so you can go to college for two years,” he said.
Much is expected of Caleb and his classmates. Over the summer they’ll take sheltered “summer bridge” classes limited to other students in their program. By fall, they’ll be integrated into standard community college courses — on their way to earning 61 college credits.
“It’s like getting six years of education in four,” said Hite.
“This is the first of many unique things we’re trying to here in the School District of Philadelphia,” he later added.
The district is treating Parkway Center City Middle College as a pilot program, with possible expansion to come if all goes well, Hite said. He’s eying potential partnerships with Temple, Drexel, and other city schools. It’s also likely the district will expand its link with CCP.
“This is the maiden voyage of what I hope to be a long partnership,” said Donald Generals, CCP’s president.
First, though, district officials have to prove the concept works here in Philadelphia. They’re spending roughly $3,000 per student, per year on the program. That’s on top of what it normally costs to educate a district student.
To help smooth the transition as students enter Parkway Center City Middle College, CCP will provide them with mentors who recently earned degrees, said David Thomas, associate vice president of strategic initiatives.
CCP isn’t totally new for this age group. The district does offer dual-enrollment classes where students can take community college classes while still in high school. But the scope and ambition of this program go well beyond the stray dual-enrollment course.
Asked about the idea of taking classes with students who could five or 10 years her senior, Emma Lein admitted she’s a bit nervous.
“At first I was a little intimidated,” she said. “Because it’s like older people, and I’m kinda scared of older people.”