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Cascade’s Middle College partnership graduates first class from ‘Whole School’ era

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These are exciting times for Channelle Crittenden and Dario Papa-Vicente. Both just graduated from the Jefferson High School Middle College for Advanced Studies and, thanks to Jefferson’s unique partnership with Portland Community College, both have educational options they never dreamed of.

Crittenden and Papa-Vicente are members of Jefferson’s Class of 2015 – the first class of seniors to graduate from the innovative, “whole-school” early-college model developed in partnership with PCC. Prior to 2011, when the whole-school model was adopted, Jefferson was a comprehensive high school much like those found in neighborhoods throughout Portland. What set it apart from its sister high schools, though, was a small but highly successful opt-in program called the Middle College.

At the time, students in the Middle College were able to take courses at PCC’s nearby Cascade Campus at no cost – the program covered the price of PCC tuition, books, and fees. Participation in the program carried obvious advantages: Students were able to earn transferable college credit while still enrolled in high school, allowing them to make significant progress toward a college degree by the time they earned a high school diploma.

Channelle Crittenden and Dario Papa-Vicente graduated from the Jefferson High School Middle College for Advanced Studies.

Channelle Crittenden and Dario Papa-Vicente graduated from the Jefferson High School Middle College for Advanced Studies.

The Middle College was an unquestioned success. Realizing this, Portland Public Schools made the decision to expand the program to encompass every student at Jefferson. Working closely with faculty and staff at Cascade, Jefferson – rechristened as Jefferson High School – Middle College for Advance Studies – transformed its ninth- and 10th-grade courses into a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum, with the goal that every Jefferson student would begin taking PCC classes in their junior year. Each would be able to graduate with between 12 and 45 college credits under his or her belt; more ambitious students are able to earn even more. Enrollment in Jefferson High School Middle College for Advanced Studies was opened to students from other parts of town, with priority given to students from Jefferson’s traditional catchment area.

“Our partnership with Jefferson and Portland Public Schools is the sort of thing that our society needs to see more of,” said Karin Edwards, president of PCC’s Cascade Campus. “We know that most jobs in the 21st-century economy require at least some college education, and we know that the price of college is growing beyond many people’s reach. The Middle College addresses both these issues by giving young people an early start in higher education.”

As word of the programs expansion – and its record of success – spread, local four-year colleges and universities took notice. Several prominent institutions – including the University of Oregon, Oregon State University, Portland State University, Warner-Pacific College, Willamette University, and Pacific University – created scholarships for Middle College students, paving the way for Jefferson graduates to earn a bachelor’s degree at little or no cost.

The change to the whole-school Middle College model has reversed Jefferson’s fortunes as well. A recent candidate for closure, with declining enrollment and high turnover among its leadership, the venerable North Portland institution has seen its enrollment climb steadily since the reorganization took place.

The freshmen entering Jefferson in the fall of 2011 – the future Class of 2015 – were the first to start their high school careers under the whole-school model. Which brings us back to Channelle Crittenden and Dario Papa-Vicente.

Crittenden is the recipient of the Middle College scholarship from Willamette University in Salem, where she will head this fall to study sociology and politics. The first member of her family to attend college, Crittenden went into Jefferson as a freshman knowing that the Middle College represented a unique opportunity to chart her own course in life.

“I went in anticipating that it would be something different than most people experience,” she said. “It changed my outlook on high school. Knowing that college would be part of the equation gave me something to look forward to.”

Papa-Vicente will return to PCC this fall, where he plans to earn a transfer degree before heading to Lewis & Clark College to study finance. He said that college wasn’t on his mind before high school, but thanks to a family member’s encouragement he opted to enroll at Jefferson High School Middle College for Advanced Studies.

“I actually didn’t know what I wanted to do with my time in high school,” he said. “I like to play sports, so I knew that would be a part of it. But my granddad knew. He sent me [to Jefferson]. Once I started taking PCC classes, I had to ask myself, ‘What kind of person do I want to be? An athlete or a student?’ ”

Papa-Vicente and Crittenden’s experiences illustrate one of the most profound and powerful aspects of the Middle College Program – the ability to instill the belief that college is, in fact, within reach. Most Middle College students are the first members of their families to attend college, and before taking part in the program, many believed that college was simply out of reach.

“I’ve always been anxious about college; I didn’t know if it was for me, I didn’t know if I could afford it.” Papa-Vicente said. “But now – I have the sense that I can do it.”

For Crittenden, who had always wanted to go to college, the Middle College Program enabled her to put those aspirations on the front burner. Now she has a full scholarship to a top Northwest liberal arts university.

“The idea of attending Willamette University; it’s like a dream come true,” she said. “I know it’s the school for me. I know I’m ready.”