By ALICIA LEONARD
On Jan. 15, an hour prior to the regular Walton County School Board (WCSB) meeting, board members were presented with the idea of a possible collegiate high school on the South Walton Northwest Florida State College (NWFSC) campus in conjunction with the already present collegiate high school program offered by NWFSC.
Seaside Neighborhood School Director Cathy Brubaker was joined by South Walton High School Vice-principals Johnathan D’Avignon and James Ross as part of the Educational Consortium of South Walton.
Upon introducing the group, Walton County School District Superintendent Carlene Anderson said, “I thought it [the idea] was worthy of discussion, this idea of a collegiate high school for south Walton.”
D’Avignon told the board that students south of the bay have very diverse needs academically. He made note of the Boys & Girls Club being built and the proximity of the NWFSC and the Coastal Library to the college. Although many students want to fast track their associate’s degree through collegiate classes, D’Avignon cited financial and transportation restraints for many students and families wishing to participate in the program held on the main Niceville campus. “That takes an opportunity away from them,” he added.
Students who now want to enroll in the Niceville campus program must attend all classes 10th through 12th on the college campus. “When parents and kids come to me and say they want to attend this program, they’re gone. They go to Niceville. They and the talent they have leave our community,” D’Avignon said.
The group proposed a working relationship between the high school and college for the first two years of studies at the NWFSC campus, where the rooms, four in total, would be leased during the day for collegiate students. For the last two years of program study, the students would still travel to Niceville, unless the program and demand grew to support it.
Ross told the board, “It’s hard to see these students we have built relationships with leave the area because we cannot meet their needs. This would give our students in the south end a way to stay home and in Walton County.”
Brubaker told the board that as a student that paid her way through college, this would offer an opportunity to families to have those first two years paid for when some families were not considering college due to financial restrictions. “This model will serve so many students in Walton County and could be a blessing for many families that can’t afford to send their kids to college.
The consortium met with NWFSC representatives a month ago and realized that many of their classrooms are underutilized and could be leased, along with office space for the program. In a different spin, Brubaker said the group believed the classes in south Walton would begin in 9th grade in order for students to be where they needed to make the transition to college academics. “There are some strategies we can provide to make sure they’re ready to enter the 10th grade and a rigorous course of study,” she added.
The group noted the program may draw students from Okaloosa, who do not want to cross the bridge as well as possibly adults in the future seeking college degrees.
The past year, 87 percent of students in the collegiate high school program finished the program and it has been ranked the top high school in Florida three times in the last 11 years. Students graduate high school with an associate’s degree along with their high school diploma.
The group would expect around 40 students per grade with a maximum of 160 by 2015. WCSB Chair Mark Davis asked which classes would be offered by the new model that students could not take now. Brubaker responded that higher level biology classes and college success/reading classes were two that were not offered.
Smaller class size advantages, advanced college language classes, such as Spanish and some other fine arts elective classes could be offered, Brubaker added. Student transportation was also discussed with NWFSC by the consortium and the possibility that it could be provided for students to the Niceville campus.
D’Avignon also noted that the program could help retain instructors as well in the area.
WCSB member Dennis Wallace asked how the tuition for these students is paid. “At the collegiate, right now, the money they have left over at the end of the year, since they are part of the state college system, those funds pay for the students,” Brubaker said, adding they had been in discussions with the state college system about funding for 9th and 10th graders, if the new program gets off the ground.
A sense of community and accomplishment were also mentioned as pluses for the program. WCSB member Sharon Roberts asked who would be charged for the transportation cost of busing students. Brubaker responded that the expense would be shared between Seaside School and NWFSC.
Davis asked “Do we have concerns, that essentially, we are being poached for our high end students?” Group members responded that a majority or at least half of students from Seaside Middle School chose to attend the collegiate program in Niceville, rather than South Walton High School.
Dennis asked if there was any research that students that went though the program had a higher rate of graduating or success from higher degree programs. Brubaker responded she wasn’t sure if there were any studies, but she would look into it.
Davis responded, “I sat on a graduate commissions committee and quite honestly they despise 20-year-old college graduates. It’s just the reality these kids have to deal with. Going to get an A.A. at 18 and a bachelor’s degree at 20 and not getting in at the graduate programs. There was a dead period between their degrees. Some would work for a couple of years and reapply. Some came back and some didn’t. It was a remarkable thing to watch. It’s a real danger. I warn parents about it all the time.”
D’Avignon responded that having a more diverse roster of classes could help students decide which track – dual enrollment or collegiate high school – they would prefer.
Davis responded to the statement, “Frankly, Mr. D’Avignon, this is just me talking and I’m certainly not speaking for the board, this is just my personal opinion when I say this, but I’ve been here since before charter schools existed and when charter schools were announced by Governor Chiles, his reasoning was and the current president’s reasoning is that charter school can be free of all the regulations that we are subject to, so they can do more new and innovative things. Well, if that’s the argument, free us. If that’s the argument, and we got them to do it for two years, we had, de-regulated schools, in fact Carlene was free of hundreds of crazy little rules and built a wonderful elementary school. Frankly, I think there’s a bit of hypocrisy going on here. Whenever we have Mrs. Brubaker come to see us and says ‘we’re looking at expanding Seaside School,’ that’s our failure, ’cause we haven’t been able to provide what she’s looking for for her students. And that’s a failure on our part. That’s just the way I see it. I haven’t decided if this is a good, bad or indifferent idea. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but it’s on me sitting here and that’s disappointing. If the state and federal government are really serious about charter being the way to go, free us, let us do what we know we can do for our schools. Okay, I’m off my soapbox. Thank you.”
Anderson responded, “I see it not as a failure, but as a restriction. If we had four students that wanted to take a collegiate course at South Walton High School and we had the money, we certainly would. I see it as being restrictive, not having the funding to provide all the things we would like to provide. Charters have a lot more flexibility than we do. We would be able to provide a lot more opportunities to out students were we not restricted by budgeting. Also, class size reduction, just another issue. Charters are still at school average. If there’s a failure, it’s a failure of our system to not provide adequate funding, not just to provide the needs but the wants and truly, being a collegiate student at a high school is not a need, it’s a want.”
Brubaker responded that she saw it as neither a charter or public school issue, but an option to provide a service for the students of Walton County. “I think in Walton County, we’ve got to the point where we can work together to provide solutions and models to provide solutions to the students of Walton County.”