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They grow up so fast 

The traditional route for a student is four years of high school, then college. But what if you could condense this? What if a kid could graduate high school with an associates degree, or more?

This is exactly what's promised by Colorado Springs Early Colleges, a charter school registered through the state's Charter School Institute and housed on the campus of Colorado Technical University. Started five years ago by charter school advocate and now-state Sen. Keith King, CSEC has graduated a number of students with 40-plus hours of college credit, some with their associates degree, and in one instance, even a bachelor's. This year's graduating class of 123 also completed an average of 43 college credit hours, and 23 left with associates degrees.

"We've had no one start on their master's degree, yet," says King, "but they could do that. We don't stop them."

Unique partnership

"The express goal of the school," explains King, "is that the student gets an associate's degree, at least, or much progress towards an associates degree."

After signing up, students take the Accuplacer test, used by community colleges. From those results, students are placed in classes appropriate to their development: remedial, matching their grade level, or higher.

As King notes, about 30 percent of high school graduates today cannot do basic college work. If a kid struggles at CSEC, he says, the school works to "move them as quickly as possible through the curriculum to get them up to the place where they can do college courses." They focus on specific areas of weakness, he says, working with the student one-on-one if needed. Summer school is also an option.

Since CSEC has open enrollment, students have varying degrees of proficiency. King notes that in June, of 112 incoming students taking Accuplacer, 20 tested four grade levels below their age in math; 14 were college-ready.

Students can take classes at Pikes Peak Community College or the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and some go to Colorado Tech. In theory, a ninth-grade kid could go straight to college courses.

Take, for example, algebra, a beginning college math course and also a high school requirement. Students can take the algebra course at the college level, and get both high school and college credit. But if they test extremely well, they can leapfrog directly to more advanced courses.

One current freshman wants to take calculus and French 4 at UCCS, but UCCS won't accept kids under 16 unless they take the ACT. King says the schools are negotiating.

Students from charter, public and private schools, plus home schoolers, participate in Pikes Peak Community College's Post-Secondary Enrollment Options program. There are upward of 60 schools participating, says Lindsey Walters, a PPCC administrative assistant.

The participation ranges, she says, from one course a semester to full loads.

"Most of the public high schools, for example, will send [their students] for one class a semester, and they may have a limit of 5 to 10 students who can participate," she says. "Whereas some of the charter schools — and some public schools — will send as many that want to come."

Walters says CSEC is the most aggressive local school.

Says King: "We want our students doing nine to 12 hours of college credit the first year."

Small, but growing

In its first year, CSEC spent $350,000 on college tuition. This year, it projects to spend roughly $900,000 — almost a third of the budget, from the school's state per-pupil funding.

King says CSEC would rather spend money on college tuition than on staffing at the school. With 600 students, CSEC only has 20 full-time teachers handling remedial and college-prep instruction. Another 20 or so adjunct professors teach college-level work on-site at CSEC. The classrooms are typical size, 24 students on average.

The school has no salary schedule, relying solely on merit-based pay based in part on how effectively teachers advance students into college-level work. Teachers start at $36,000, ahead of Colorado Springs School District 11's base starting salary of $29,000.

From last year to now, the school's enrollment increased by 100, continuing its steady growth. King says the first year, its sole bus ran to the southeast part of town. Now one of its four buses starts at Wal-Mart in Falcon, and that stop nearly fills the bus.

Falcon's own schools, King notes, now charge for bus rides, $1 each way.

"We do it free," King says. "We do not want any economic roadblock for a kid coming to the school."

chet@csindy.com

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