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By Aseela Galeeb 

If you’ve talked to a high school student recently, you may have heard them talk about their IB course, or an upcoming AP test. These programs, as well as Running Start, Career and Technical Education (CTE), Cambridge International (CI), and College in the High School, make up dual credit courses in Washington State. These programs allow students to earn credit for college during high school, which gives them a chance to experience the expectations of college-level coursework. 

For about a decade, these courses have been growing in the state, supported by legislation such as HB 1642, a 2013 bill establishing encouraging districts to adopt an academic acceleration policy that automatically enrolls in the next most rigorous level of advanced courses offered by the high school if they’ve met the state standard on the statewide exam.As well as HB 1599, a 2019 bill modifying high school graduation requirements to promote college readiness. 

However, for all the advances that have been made, there are still disparities among student demographics. To learn more about this, we interviewed several high school students and professionals working in the education field. The interviewees shed light on experiences within dual credit classes, as well as the inequities they have noticed. 

We began with the basics: Why do students take dual credit classes? On one hand, they offer many more opportunities than may exist within one school. Lilli Mccauley, a rising junior beginning full time Running Start this school year, wanted to join the program since middle school, and is hoping it will help her focus on a career she loves. Running Start is a program that allows high schoolers to enroll in college courses in community colleges and earn credit there. 

 “I think getting my prerequisites done in high school means I can just focus on what I want to do.”  At Lilli’s school, students must wait until junior year to take AP classes. “Since we have such a limited staff, they’re very high enrollment classes, and there aren’t enough opportunities. And the opportunities that come with Running Start are better.”

Other students take dual credit classes in order to prepare for their post-secondary plans. Airah Virani, a rising senior, takes AP and IB classes at her school. She says, “the way people advertised IB as good college prep made it seem more favorable.” Dual credit courses are one of the main ways that high school students can prepare for college. In fact, according to the U.S Department of Education’s WWC Intervention Report, students who take dual credit courses are more likely to graduate on time, and enroll in a post-secondary program. 

But, for all the proven benefits of dual credit courses, there are significant patterns of inequity within them. We talked to two professionals in the education field to gain more insight. 

Kristen Hengtgen, a senior policy analyst with The Education Trust, notes that “Dual credit is really unequal just across high schools, so depending on what district you’re in, you may have dozens of opportunities or four classes total.” Besides geographical inequalities, there are also financial barriers. Jeff Charbonneau, the principal of Zillah High School, says, “Last school year, we had U.S History offered as a College in the High School course for all of our sophomores. Even though we have about 120 sophomores, only 35 of them took the course for college credit, and it was directly because of the associated fees that went with it.” 

There are also concerning disparities within the demographics of students enrolled in dual credit. Kristen explained, “We certainly see a large inequity in access for students of color involved in dual credit classes. Whether the information isn’t being conveyed to these students, they’re getting a message that this class is not for them, they’re not being identified for these courses, or there’s some sort of financial barrer, we definitely see fewer students of color enrolling in and completing dual credit courses in multiple states.”  Airah pointed out the gender inequity in dual credit at her school. “We all have to take STEM courses, but not a lot of girls double in sciences or take higher level science courses like I did.” As Kristen puts it, “All of these benefits mean the inequities are so much worse, because [dual credit] can be a mechanism for helping increase access for our students.” 

But there’s good news: some of the barriers are being broken and allowing more students to access dual credit courses. For example, Zillah High School recently announced that students can earn an Associates of Arts, or A.A, degree during high school. When we asked Jeff about the changes at his school, he said, “The bills that were passed this last legislative session- the changes to College in the High School and the changes to Running Start- those are going to have a tremendous benefit.”

As a final statement, we asked the interviewees to give some parting remarks to students and professionals. “I would encourage students to look into what opportunities your school has,” says Kristen. “I want students to know they do belong, and even if there’s resistance and the class seems difficult, this class is for you.” Jeff added, “The work that needs to come next is the work on perception, and helping students to envision their futures.”

As our interviewees mentioned, dual credit courses provide opportunities for students across the nation. In WA, school districts, advocacy organizations, and state legislatures all have a duty to push for more equitable access.  Stand WA is continuing our focus removing barriers to dual credit – including student fees. Guided by research and students in our communities, we can ensure that young people can access and thrive in advanced courses.

In 2002, educators Scott Sattler and Tami Jackson set out with a vision that would dramatically change the culture of rural Bridgeport High School over the next two decades. At the time, Bridgeport was designated as one of the worst-performing districts in Washington state with some of the lowest student test scores. If they were going to find a new way forward, Tami and Scott believed that they must raise the bar for their students. So they began by offering their very first dual credit courses to any student who would take them. 

Bridgeport was years ahead of many Washington districts, adopting an expansive approach to dual credit classes before it became a focus of education policymakers. It wasn’t until 2013, after Federal Way and Tacoma School Districts school boards had adopted a policy known as Academic Acceleration, that more Washington districts began expanding access to dual credit through this automatic enrollment process. Bridgeport adopted their official Academic Acceleration policy that same year, but it only formalized what had been fundamental to Scott and Tami’s approach over the last decade. 

Those first years were not easy for Scott and Tami. Scott, now the district Superintendent, recalls the pushback he received from families about these courses: “I had a parent march into my office upset and yelling at me ‘how dare you have my kid enroll in college classes, you’re stealing her high school experience!’” But as parents witnessed the students’ enthusiasm for dual credit classes and the district was able to demonstrate how much money families were saving in college tuition, the pushback dissipated.

“That student [whose parent yelled at me] still took advantage of those opportunities and that same parent eventually came back and thanked me because she was already two years into college by the time she graduated,” said Scott.

Almost twenty years later, Tami looks back on that time and knows for certain that “we couldn’t get rid of the program if we wanted to.” Now it’s an integral part of the Bridgeport High School experience. Their upperclassmen continue the tradition every year when they visit middle schoolers and share reflections about their experiences taking college-level courses.

“Parents love the money being saved by earning college credits early, but it’s our kids who keep it going.” – Tami Jackson, BHS Principal

These days, over 75% of Bridgeport high school students – across all grades – are taking dual credit courses. Across Washington state the average is only 62% of students, putting Bridgeport above and beyond most schools. As a small, rural district with only 800 total students and the closest college campus 45 miles away, their high-rate of enrollment is even more impressive.

“Our kids don’t have to go anywhere to have access to these courses,” says Scott. “They get them right in their own building.” Bridgeport has made a habit of training their own teachers by supporting them in becoming part-time faculty at the closest community college for College in the High School courses or sending teachers to AP professional development programs when they’re available. “Being in a rural area, we attract teachers who are interested in living away from the hustle and bustle. That means that we have to train up our own,” according to Scott.

In 2011, Bridgeport was recognized as one of the top three high schools in the country during a competition led by the Obama White House. With a student population that is 90% low income and 45% English language learners, their graduation and college enrollment regularly exceed statewide averages. Ten years later, Bridgeport is still seeing results and is looking forward to more schools adopting their approach, starting with Academic Acceleration. 

“In our school, it was the kids who made it happen,” says Tami, who currently serves as the high school Principal. “They pushed the teachers to get certified to teach dual credit. Parents love the money being saved by earning college credits early, but it’s our kids who keep it going.”

As of September 2021, a majority of Washington school districts had adopted an Academic Acceleration policy as required by a state law passed in 2019 with the support of Stand for Children and education advocates across the state. Stand’s recently released report, Building Bridges to Dual Credit, lists all of those districts and includes links to their individual policies. The report serves as a celebration of the progress made so far and a reference point for the remaining districts that need to adopt a policy by the end of this school year.

If you have questions or would like support connecting your school district to Academic Acceleration resources, please email [email protected] and our team will be happy to help.

Good news: there has been significant progress in Washington towards a more equitable education for every student.

Today, we’re publishing a report that shows a majority of Washington school districts have adopted an Academic Acceleration dual credit policy that is rooted in racial equity. Our path is bending towards justice in Washington as we celebrate the removal of historic barriers for students of color and students from low-income families. 

This is a milestone almost a decade in the making.

In 2012 and 2013, Federal Way and Tacoma school districts paved the way when they began automatically enrolling students into the next most rigorous course they were qualified for. Federal Way saw a 70% increase in dual credit enrollment and Tacoma tripled its dual credit enrollment for students of color from 19.5% to 60% by 2018, with no drop corresponding in student passage rates.

It hasn’t taken long for this approach to catch on. As the map above shows, the policy has spread across the state and schools continue to demonstrate significant gains for underrepresented student groups in dual credit courses. Now, we’re celebrating the fact that 160 school districts have adopted a policy and joined the movement towards dual credit equity!

You can review the current list of districts that have adopted a policy in our Building Bridges report, published today.

When Stand advocates and partners were fighting for statewide adoption of this policy in 2019, former Washington State Teacher of the Year Nate Bowling wrote in The Seattle Times about the impact of Academic Acceleration in his district:

“The underrepresentation of students of color and low-income students in advanced courses is a long-term driver and consequence of societal inequality.

We are not doomed to repeat the mistakes and failures of the past. In Tacoma — where I teach — our standard is to try to make our advanced classes demographically representative of our schools. It’s an official policy called Academic Acceleration. We never turn a kid away — even jocks who may be surprised to learn they qualify for advanced courses find themselves in my classroom. This policy works, sometimes even after the students (or their parents) express hesitation at the start of the school year about taking on advanced coursework.”

Washington state is committed to increasing enrollment in dual credit courses as a tool for addressing inequity. Dual credit courses like AP, College in the High School, Running Start, and CTE programs prepare students for their next steps in college and career. “Growing equitable access to dual credit programs is one way to stem exploding student loan debt and better prepare our young people for an economically stable future.” (OSPI, 2018)

Today’s report is the result of years of advocacy and efforts to create a more equitable education system. Click here to view the report and see if your district is included, then celebrate with us by sharing the good news with your community!

We’re proud to be standing with you and with these districts as we pave the way for a more equitable education system for every student.