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Wrenshall, LSC team up to offer associate degree

The small K-12 school district in Wrenshall sometimes has struggled to offer enough challenging courses to keep ambitious juniors and seniors from opting to take college courses in Cloquet or Duluth.

That has led to multiple issues, said Kim Belcastro, superintendent and principal, including the loss of state per pupil funding and some students who flounder without the guidance that comes from being in high school all day.

But mostly, “the presence of older kids at the school — I call them the higher-achieving students — is beneficial,” she said. “They are great role models who participate in academics and activities and athletics. When they would leave, that was tough.”

A new partnership between the district 30 minutes south of Duluth and Lake Superior College is an attempt to fix that.

Students will have the chance to earn an associate degree on the Wrenshall campus while completing their high school requirements. They’ll do that by taking courses online from Lake Superior College instructors and in person through their own teachers. The program is part of the state post-secondary enrollment option, which allows students to earn free college credit while still in high school.

 The college already works with nearly 30 schools in the region to offer college courses in their classrooms, but this partnership would be unique to the area, said Melissa Leno, director of admissions for Lake Superior College.

“What’s different about this is it’s really intentional,” she said, because it’s designed in a cohort or group fashion.

Belcastro and guidance counselor Erik Holter will guide students in a planning-style class a couple of days a week. At school, courses will include college writing and advanced Spanish, some of which already is offered by Wrenshall through the college. Online, choices include psychology and communication.

The teachers at Wrenshall must have the right credentials to teach courses for college credits, and they will have as mentors instructors from the college who teach the same subjects. The high school courses will be evaluated by the college to ensure their rigor, Leno said.

Students must meet eligibility requirements to enroll in the program, including passing a test. Seniors should rank in the top half of their class or have a 2.5 grade-point average, and juniors should rank in the top one-third or have a 3.0 grade point average. Sophomores are able to take one technical class — a new law passed in 2012 — but also must meet requirements.

Even then, Holter said, the school will make judgment calls on what students are accepted.

“If they aren’t ready, but their GPA says so and they fail a class, they could be put on academic probation before they are a college student,” he said. “That would be the biggest downfall. The biggest concern is making sure they are ready.”

Between 5 percent and 10 percent of Wrenshall high school students take advanced placement courses or post-secondary classes in a given year. This year there are 25 seniors, 42 juniors and 30 sophomores.

Belcastro said she hopes for 25-30 students the first year, and she expects the program will increase enrollment at the school. The goal, she said, isn’t for every student who participates to earn an associate degree. For some, it will be about more opportunity, and earning enough credits to shave some money off a future college bill.

“The rising cost of tuition is unbelievable,” Belcastro said. Lake Superior College estimates two years there costs $10,000.

When she started hearing from parents that post-secondary was becoming more of a serious option for their students to save money.

“I felt like we needed to do this,” she said. “(The cost of college) has really turned into a nightmare for people,” Belcastro said.

Holter said some families might be disappointed if their kids don’t make the eligibility cut. A lot of students are interested, he said, and pep talks have been given to some who sit on the brink. Almost 60 percent of the school’s sophomores were proficient or better in reading last year but only 29 percent of its juniors were the same in math. Those are the classes the state tests in those subjects.

The new program could have an effect on test scores, Holter said, as students try to raise their grades to be a part of it.

“It’s really a motivational factor to them,” he said. “It’s not going to be for everybody … but we hope there is an enticement to find motivation at school and at home.”

To learn more

Information sessions will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday and 7 p.m. May 6 at the Wrenshall School Commons.