The Young College Try : 10th-Graders Who Need Higher Goals Take the Middle Ground

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The students hanging around bungalow B-15 on the campus of Santa Ana College may look a little out of place.

It's not that they aren't smoking, as most (or at least many) college students seem to do these days, or that their shirts are tucked in, it's their apparent age. On average, they're about 15 years old.

They are high school students, and the subtle boundaries that separate them from their college counterparts are defined by a program launched this year by Santa Ana College and the Santa Ana Unified School District.

Middle College High School, as it is known, has taken 83 bright yet underachieving students from Santa Ana's four comprehensive high schools and assigned them to classes conducted in five bungalows on the Santa Ana College campus.

The 10th-graders still get dropped off at school by their parents. They can't walk across the street to Burger King for lunch. And they must answer to Principal Johnny L. Williams, who strictly enforces the Santa Ana Unified dress code and anti-smoking policy.

On the flip side, these students have full access to the college library. They can take college classes ranging from French to sociology. And they rub shoulders with students almost twice their age.

"The college students, they don't know you're 15," explained Carlos Coreas, 15. "They're like, 'What? Are you some kind of a genius?' "

Almost. The students chosen for Santa Ana's Middle College High often had high test scores but didn't have the grades to match. School administrators thought traditional high school campuses did not give them the attention, and opportunities, they needed to reach their full potential.

The middle college concept has already been instituted in about two dozen locations across the country. The Newport-Mesa Unified School District opened Orange County's first middle college on the campus of Orange Coast College last year.

Santa Ana administrators sent out brochures to 200 prospective middle college students in March, Williams said. About 125 showed interest, and after interviewing students and parents, officials chose 90 for Santa Ana's first Middle College class--the class of 2000.

Middle College is expected to add about 90 students each year for the next two years, and will then maintain an enrollment of close to 300 students.

The 90 students in the inaugural class had to attend a mandatory summer school session that included a college orientation class. Since then, seven students have dropped out--an acceptable number, said Williams, given the program's unique demands.

The fall semester for Middle College students began Aug. 25 to coincide with the start of college-level classes on the campus. This week, Williams said the six-week report cards showed that Middle College students had an average grade-point average of 2.47 in their high school classes.

The student body grade-point average upon arrival at Middle College was 2.5, Williams said. But he expects the average to hit 3.0 by semester's end, once students are adjusted to the program.

The Middle College program requires students to attend four core classes--English, history, science and math--taught by Santa Ana Unified high school teachers.

Students also take a college physical education class, and a college computer science or typing class.

If that is not enough, students may take more college classes, such as French, sociology or music.

Williams said almost two dozen students are taking a "seventh-period" class at the college.

One of them is Miriam Cantoran, 15. Cantoran said she has about four hours of homework a night but is actually doing better at Middle College because of the lower student-to-teacher ratio.

"The teachers care. They focus more on you, they help you out," she said. "They don't tell you, 'Here's the book--read it.' "

Cantoran said some of her classes at Santa Ana Valley High School had as many as 45 students. At Middle College, the number in each class is about half that.

Indeed, the intimacy brought about by smaller classes is one of Middle College's greatest assets, according to students and teachers.

The students "are not a number," English teacher Gladys Martinez-Burke said. "They have a name now."

A grant from the state college system pays for the college books, and the college waives the tuition fees. (When the state grant runs out in 1999, Williams hopes to raise the book money through corporate sponsors and fund-raisers.)

Students receive high school and college credit for the college courses--meaning that a select few students may graduate from Middle College High with enough credits for a two-year associate college degree.

Middle College has a "virtual campus" in the walkways and lunch table surrounded by its four classroom bungalows. Students and teachers smile and joke as they pass each other.

But one downside to Middle College, students say, is the inability to participate in, or rally around, a high school sports team.

Coreas, for example, misses playing high school baseball, and the rivalry with different high schools.

But dropping high school sports was a sacrifice he knew he had to make.

"I had to leave sports--that was the hard part," Coreas said. "But I thought I would get farther in life with my education than my sports."

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