Blue Water Middle College Academy gives students head start on higher education

Anna Dalessandro will have an associate degree when she graduates from BWMCA in May.

Eighteen-year-old Capac resident Anna Dalessandro is on track to graduate in May with more than her high school diploma this year. In May, she also will earn an associate degree in general education, associate in business and associate in art thanks to the partnership between the Blue Water Middle College (BWMCA), St. Clair County Community College and St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA).

The partnership—which provides free college tuition for students—has allowed Dalessandro to attend high school for three hours a day, take college courses, continue to participate in extracurricular activities and work at a part-time job.

"There were times where I felt like it was too much to handle, but those times passed and it is so worth it in the end," she says.

Dalessandro is one of more than 1,500 students who has attended or currently take classes through BWMCA on SC4's campus
. The program, which started in fall 2011, allows high school students to spend one extra year in school and earn a two-year college degree for free.

Pete Spencer serves as director of Blue Water Middle College Academy.The Middle College came about through discussions among RESA administrators and local superintendents in St. Clair County who were looking for a way to increase the percentage of county residents with secondary education, says BWMCA Director Pete Spencer. "The college degree completion rate was in the low 30 percent range, which was similar to the statewide average. The Middle College was a way of increasing the number of county residents with college degrees."

The Middle College is considered a public school academy. It has its own school board, but is not a stand-alone school. In addition to SC4 and RESA, it partners with the school districts of Algonac, Capac, Memphis, Port Huron and Yale, and the Virtual Learning Academy of St. Clair County.

Middle College students begin taking college courses at SC4 in 11th grade while continuing to attend their home high school. In 12th grade, they evenly split their time between SC4 and high school, and by year 13 they usually take all college courses.

Unlike dual enrollment programs, which are typically reserved for academically high-achieving students, BWMCA is open to all students.

"It's very unique and it allows so many more students to participate," Spencer says.

"The financial savings to students and families receiving free tuition and books is a huge benefit, making college possible for many students who otherwise may not have been able to attend."
-Pete Lacey, St. Clair County Community College director of Student Services

Students also are able to continue sports and other extracurricular activities at their high school while enrolled in the program. College tuition, books and fees are covered by the program, which receives state funding.

"The extra year of high school requires extra (state) funding, but the benefit is you're getting the likelihood that students either graduate with an associate degree or are close… the payoff can be very high, and I think that's what the state is thinking," Spencer says.

Students can earn 62 college credits by the end of their 13th year, and those credits can transfer to four-year colleges or universities. That can mean big family savings for college-bound students and their families. Middle College graduates who transfer to Central Michigan University, for example, can save nearly $50,000 when considering the cost of 62 credits and two years of room, board and books.

"The financial savings to students and families receiving free tuition and books is a huge benefit, making college possible for many students who otherwise may not have been able to attend," says Pete Lacey, SC4 vice president of student services.

Spencer noted that many students love the wide array of classes and depth of discussions they are able to participate in through the BWMCA program.

Dalessandro, who attended Capac Jr./Sr. High School, says BWMCA is a great way for students to gradually work their way into college, save money, and remain a step ahead. She says she wants to study business at Wayne State University or another four-year institution once she graduates from the Middle College.

"Many of the people I went to high school with were walking into a completely different world after graduation," she says. "When I go off to a university I will already have an idea of how college works so the adjustment will be a lot easier.”

Dalessandro says the biggest lesson she's taken from the program so far has been learning how to push herself.

"I am enrolled in the Honors Program here at SC4, which means I have had to learn how to balance extra work with everything else in my life," she says.

Pete Lacey, SC4 vice president of student services. BWMCA helps students transition into college through several programs. All students have to attend a two-day orientation and complete a college course called College Success. General success sessions are offered on topics such as note-taking strategies and how to build a plan toward a degree, Spencer says. In their final year, students attend sessions on how to apply for universities and pay for school.

If students' grades drop below a C, Middle College representatives will contact them and their parents and advise them on further support opportunities, such as tutoring. If a student's college grade point drops below 2.0, they are required to meet regularly with an advisor.

About 90 percent of students who enroll in BWMCA end up getting their high school diploma through the program; some end up transferring back to their home high school before graduation. Of those who finish, about 45 percent complete their associate's degree by the end of their 13th year. Two years after their BWMCA graduation, over 60-percent have earned a degree, Spencer says.

At the end of their 13th year, students have earned an average of 55 credit hours. Associate degrees require 62 credits.

"The retention and completion rates of students who enter the BWMCA program exceeds that of traditional new college students," Lacey says.

He says the program is a model for others in the state and nation to follow.

"I see the BWMCA as an opportunity for students that will continue to grow, helping to push the level of higher education attainment in our community and ultimately making the entire Blue Water Area stronger," Lacey says.

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