Alternative high school offers fast track to college

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published May 24, 2011


Students at Niles Community High School in Troy can earn college credit while they complete credits toward their high school diploma, but it’s not easy.

The students come to the alternative high school from other school districts and other counties for a number of reasons, and most, if not all of the 150 students at Niles, arrive short on credits they need to graduate from high school.

Meghan Griffith, 18, was short on credits because her family moved around a lot. She applied for and was accepted into the dual enrollment program, which allows students to earn credits for history and English classes at Oakland Community College, but requires instructor approval, good grades and attendance, and successful completion of a prerequisite course called college note-taking.

That course is a lot more than its name implies.

The course covers how to identify learning styles, what’s expected for college papers, how to fill out financial aid and other applications, and tours of Oakland University and OCC. Debra MacDonald, a supervisor at Niles, said she believes Niles is the only nontraditional high school in the area to offer the program.

The program greatly motivates students who may not otherwise have gone to college or who would have taken much longer to make that decision, said Jeff Rainwater, dual enrollment and English teacher at Niles.

The course gives students basic knowledge about getting into college — the admissions process, registration, note-taking, reading skills, etc. “It helps get these kids started and gives them direction,” Rainwater said.

He added, “I have seen students who start this program with some level of trepidation gain a higher level of confidence, asking themselves, what was I afraid of? I find it very rewarding to see a student who is considered at risk succeed at the post-secondary level and take that next step.”

MacDonald said that one of the most difficult transitions for the nontraditional student is to step from high school into the college environment. “Studies show that the No. 1 reason why at-risk students don’t go to college is because they don’t know where to start. College note-taking and dual enrollment teach them that,” she said.

In addition to receiving training and support in planning and preparing for their college careers, students are encouraged to apply for scholarships.

Griffith just finished her first three classes at OCC while attending Niles and has been awarded a $2,500 Chancellor’s Scholarship from OCC that she said will cover her first year of tuition. She plans to pursue nursing and maybe medical school.

“I really enjoyed the opportunity to start college with some support,” she said. “I would have been totally unprepared.”

Nate Dillard, 18, was short on credits when he arrived, but now he’ll graduate on time with college credit.

“Dual enrollment was a good experience to see what college is like,” he said. “It pushed me to work harder in school, get help on all the papers I had to write and helped me see where education goes after high school.”

Dillard plans to enter the U.S. Air Force and pursue a bachelor’s degree.

MacDonald said that out of the 61 Niles students who will graduate next month, 13 completed the dual enrollment program. More than 30 Niles students have completed the program since its inception. Next term, 22 students have been accepted into the program, which started with six students two years ago.

Last year, 96 percent of Niles graduates were enrolled in college before they officially graduated, according to MacDonald. She said Niles has the highest rate of graduation and the lowest dropout rate of nontraditional high schools in the tri-county area.

While the trend of many nontraditional high schools is to use an all-computer-based curriculum, Niles continues to offer a completely classroom-taught, more traditional educational opportunity for students.

MacDonald attributed Niles’ success to support from the Troy School District.

“I wasn’t focused in (traditional) school,” Dillard said. “This is more like a family.”