College, before the end of high school

Southwest students take advantage of a program that lets them try out college even before they mail in their applications

South High School student Abbie Norlin-Weaver spent the second half of her junior year as an exchange student in Argentina. When she returned, her Spanish exceeded that of her fellow South High School students.

The Tangletown resident took advantage of Minnesota's Minnesota's Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, and took a Spanish course at Normandale Community College. In doing so, she not only got college credit while still in high school, but the state of Minnesota paid for her books and tuition. Normandale classes each cost about $700.

"I like the atmosphere at Normandale a lot," Norlin-Weaver said. "I see a really big difference from what there is at South. The class sizes are 20, compared to 35 at South. Class size is a big thing because it is easier to learn when there are fewer kids in class. There is more one-on-one attention from the teacher when you need it."

She added, "The technology is better at Normandale, too. They have more computers available to their students and have overhead projectors and television with VCRs in every room. Those may be small, simple things, but when you return to South and realize that they are not there, it sort of jumps out at you."

Dan Sikkink Johnson, a Lowry Hill resident who is also a South senior, is taking courses at the University of Minnesota. He picked U because he felt it was the best place for him -- and his parents work close by, so he gets a ride to class.

"PSEO makes me want to go to college right now," Sikkink Johnson said. "I like the opportunity of getting out of South for part of the day. It feels so different at the U. Everyone is on their own, and you have more independence."

Sikkink Johnson and Norlin-Weaver are two of 187 seniors and 51 juniors in Minneapolis high schools taking advantage of PSEO. The program has been available since 1985. Sixty percent of participating students are female.

Tami Johnson, lead guidance counselor for the Minneapolis school, said the PSEO program is becoming more popular as post-secondary education expenses rise.

"It is an advantage for the student because they get to find out if they are college material," Johnson said. "It gives them a preview of what college is going to be like and allows them to decide if they want to be at a community college or a large university."

Every Minnesota college and university participates in the program; each has its own admission standards. To gain admission to the U of M, applicants must be in the top 15 percent of their class; juniors generally must have a higher class rank than seniors (sophomores are ineligible). Most kids take one or two college classes per semester; however, about 10 percent of seniors drop out of high school completely, devoting themselves to full full-time college coursework.

Said Johnson, "Some students are ready for this kind of challenge. It is a way to keep them focused instead of getting 'senioritis' and being bored and slacking off their last year of high school."

Each high school student must have a good grade-point average, be on track for graduation and be in good standing with his or her school district. There are currently 700 PSEO students attending the University of Minnesota.

The program has raised a few concerns.

"For those students who take advantage of it, the program works very well," said Craig Vana, the Minneapolis Public Schools' executive director for Current Technical Education and High School Academic Support. "But a lot of people would say that it is not accomplishing what it was set up to do -- which is to provide lower-income students the opportunity to gain college credit and thereby saving their families money during their college years.

Explained Vana, "Most participants are kids who have already made up their mind that they are going to college, and have parents who are better able to navigate the bureaucracy required to get it done. For kids whose parents have not gone to college, working through the system is more difficult, and they are less likely to participate."

Vana believes the key to equalizing PSEO participation is to spread information when kids are in 5th grade so they can prepare instead of waiting until they are in high school, which for some is too late.

However, already hard-pressed local districts lose state aid when a student participates in PSEO. Although the state pays for the program, it withholds up to $4,000 in aid per-pupil for the local school district. The state does provide 12 percent of the per-pupil aid for full-time Minneapolis PSEO students, to cover the district's record-keeping, sports and prom expenses.

One man who has intimate experience with the student-system balancing act is Steve Norlin-Weaver, Abbie's father, who is also principal at Ramsey International Fine Arts Magnet, 1 W. 49th St.

He supported his daughter's decision to take courses at Normandale. Despite some scheduling hassles between the high school and the college, he said it has worked out well so far.

"Abbie has no idea where she is going to go to college next year, but this is a nice transition," he said.

Steve Norlin-Weaver sees PSEO as a bookend for the newer, higher-profile federal No Child Left Behind standards.

"As educators, we talk about differentiating instruction so we are meeting the needs of all learners," including those at-risk, he said. "That's what No Child Left Behind is about. You target the kids on the low end to close the gap so that everybody is at grade level or higher. With Post Secondary Enrollment Options, kids who are at the high level are offered a way of having their needs met at their level, too."

Vana thinks PSEO is on the right track because the traditional notion of students having to spend four years in high school is outdated.

"The educational system in Minnesota has to change," Vana said. "We have to figure out how we get kids where they need to be educationally as soon as we can get them there."