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Program gives HS students early taste of college study

The line between college and high school has always been kind of blurry at a pair of unconventional schools in Long Island City.

Middle College High School and its sister institution, International High School, are quietly integrated into the campus of LaGuardia Community College, where their classrooms and offices are nestled in two buildings that face each other on opposite sides of Van Dam Street.

With fewer than 500 students enrolled in each, Middle College and International are much smaller than your typical Queens high schools, and their relationship with LaGuardia has always extended well beyond space-sharing, allowing students to enroll in college courses to augment their high school fare.

But a few dozen high schoolers have begun to share something far more fundamental with the collegiate crowd: their aspirations. A group of about 35 juniors from Middle College and International are embarking on a program that will give them an associate’s degree along with their high school diploma in three years, cutting out a year of schooling along with some of the prohibitive costs of college.

“Your whole persona towards school has to change,” said Jerry Torres, 15, a Middle College student from Brooklyn who is part of the program’s batch of pioneers. “It’s like going to a totally different school at the same time as you’re going to one school.”

Although the school year began Sept. 5, these part high school, part college students had already returned to the classroom well ahead of schedule for a summertime crash course that crammed a semester’s worth of material into seven days.

With two years of high school under their belt, they talk about their next three years with a mixture of trepidation and excitement: though hesitant about the piles of extra work, they are invigorated by the prospect of leaving high school with a college degree in hand.

“This is an opportunity that a lot of students in other high schools aren’t going to have,” said Caroline Duarte, 15, a Middle College student. “Just imagine, you’re going to get your high school diploma at the same time as your associate’s degree — it’s amazing. At the same time, you get your books and tuition free.”

The EXCEL Early College Program, which began this fall with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is not designed for the kind of kid who has aced his high school course load and is already destined for college. It focuses instead on those who have not yet stumbled onto a definitive college trajectory, students who have the ability yet need that extra push.

“This is an experiment for us,” said Aaron Listhaus, the principal at Middle College. “The experiment is can regular high school kids — in particular, kids who are at risk — be successful in high school and college with the right kind of support?”

“The transition from high school to college is very, very rocky. There is a real separation between those two worlds,” said Burt Rosenberg, International’s principal. “What this program tends to do is really bridge those worlds and provide for an easier transition.”

About half of all high schoolers in the city end up dropping out before graduation, Listhaus said, and Middle College caters to students who stand on the brink of that statistic, offering them the close-knit environment that will push them to overcome the odds. Indeed, four out of five Middle College students end up graduating, and 90 percent of those move onto college.

At International, meanwhile, every student is an immigrant who has lived in the United States for less than four years, facing the challenges of a new culture on top of a new language.

Those are the profiles of the students selected for EXCEL: not necessarily the top students, they still have the drive to succeed.

“If we take all kids with a proven track record, what have we proved?” asked Listhaus. “Nothing.”

The students are a bright, confident bunch, ranging from the cocky class clown to the shy bookworms. They are quiet for high schoolers, displaying an attentiveness in class that is atypical for an age when their peers might be tossing paper airplanes or chatting incessantly despite their teachers’ entreaties.

“High school classes were too boring, too easy,” said Johana Guerra, a 16-year-old International student originally from Colombia. “I wanted more, to do more things.”

They have focus and they want to succeed. The prospect of earning their associate’s degree simply adds the prize at the end.

“This is a great chance for all of us to triumph, to become what you want,” said International’s Christian Galindo. “Even if it takes a lot of work, if you have in your mind triumph, you’ll do it.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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