Disenchanted with his magnet high school, Jay McClow wanted out.
What he was being taught was essentially the same information he learned in elementary school, he said.
"We crave steak and they give us baby food," he groused.
Jay started cutting class, and when he did attend, he often fell asleep.
"I stopped trying," said the 17-year-old, who had been identified as a gifted student.
He had been planning to quit high school and take a proficiency exam when he learned of the new High School at Moorpark College, one of several so-called "middle college high schools" throughout Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties, where talented but bored students like him often find success taking a combination of high school and community college classes. Some students manage to earn associate of arts degrees along with their high school diplomas.
Now completing his junior year at the new school, Jay is motivated and enthusiastic.
"He hit the ground running. He's all about taking responsibility and he's quite vocal about it," said Taylor Gilbert, who teaches high school subjects at the college campus.
Middle college high schools have been a saving grace for thousands of students nationwide who might otherwise have dropped out, according to educators. Most of the students were struggling for a number of reasons, such as feeling lost in a large high school, having uninspiring teachers or being distracted by social cliques.
"High schools have the football games and pep rallies. Some kids feel disenfranchised from this," said Katherine Boswell, executive director of the Denver-based Center for Community College Policy at the Education Commission of the States, a national clearinghouse on education policy issues. "The middle college high school is one solution to try to help overcome those problems that have developed from the current model. It's a growing movement but it's still in the shadows."
A junior at the Moorpark College high school, Josh Jones, 16, came from Moorpark High, where he said that many students and teachers didn't seem to care and that in some classes he never got his work back.
"I want to learn the stuff. I don't just want to get a grade," said Josh, taking a break from a panel that was interviewing prospective enrollees at the middle college high school. At most of the schools, applicants are interviewed by the principal, a teacher and students to try to determine whether they will be able to handle college-level work and greater freedom.
Josh, who hopes to become an anesthesiologist, said the new environment with challenging courses and engaging class discussions has changed him.
"I used to be timid, but I'm not afraid of talking now," Josh said. "My self-confidence has risen."
In the Moorpark program, high school subjects are team-taught by Gilbert and Brian Friefeld, former Moorpark High faculty members who wanted to develop an interdisciplinary curriculum. Students make presentations, participate in debates, maintain journals and do two self-evaluations each semester. Longer class sessions and smaller classes sizes--15 students to one teacher--allow students to, for example, view and discuss an entire film in one session.
"We adhere to the state standards, but we're able to tailor the class to meet the students' needs," Friefeld said. "We couldn't do what we wanted to do [at the traditional high school]."
Academy of the Canyons, a high school program at Valencia's College of the Canyons, will graduate its first 55 seniors on Saturday. The school opened last August with 134 juniors and seniors. The first semester, a few were sent back to their original schools, in part because "they couldn't handle the freedom," said Principal Dave LeBarron.
Freedom is exactly what attracted Eva-Marie Illmeier, 18, to the school. Tired of dealing with such things as hall passes to use the restroom, Illmeier decided to give the new school a try.
"I wasn't losing anything by leaving Valencia High," said the graduating senior. "When you're done taking a test, you don't have to wait for the rest of the class to finish. You leave when you're done, and that's how it should be."
In addition to high school classes, students enroll in community college courses that can give them enough college credits by high school graduation for associate degrees. This year, 17 students at the Middle College High School at Los Angeles Southwest College received their associate degrees two weeks before high school graduation, said Principal Natalie Battersbee.
She said the school, which has 350 students, has never had a graduation rate below 94% since it opened 12 years ago. Statewide last year, about 90% of middle college high school students received their diplomas, compared with 68.7% in traditional high schools and 50.7% in the Los Angeles Unified School District, according to the chancellor's office of the California Community Colleges.
"A significant number of my students would never have survived in a large school," said Battersbee, whose middle college high school has a prom, student newspaper and yearbook.
Since the country's first middle college high school opened in 1974 at La Guardia Community College in New York, more than 30 such schools have sprouted up, mostly on the West and East coasts. California opened its first two in 1989 at L.A. Southwest College and Contra Costa College in San Pablo.
Funding for California's program increased in 1999 under Gov. Gray Davis from $300,000 to $2.1 million, and now there are 18 middle college high schools statewide.
Orange County has programs at Santa Ana College and Orange Coast Colleges in Costa Mesa. Others in L.A. County are at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, Santa Monica College and El Camino College in Torrance. Ventura College, Riverside Community College and San Diego City College have programs as well.
Although their numbers are slowly increasing, the programs remain largely unknown, even to many educators. Several people at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., who were contacted by a reporter had never heard of them.
Lance Izumi, an education issues analyst for the San Francisco-based conservative think tank Pacific Research Institute, was among those unfamiliar with middle college high schools.
"It's not to say it's necessarily a bad idea, but is it a better idea than some of the other possibilities out there?" he asked. "Obviously, there are some kids who are helped but would more be able to be helped if they were given a voucher [to a private high school]?"
One of the program's biggest boosters is Kyle Orr, an analyst for the state chancellor's office of the California Community Colleges. "Not only are they quelling the dropout rate, [but] we're seeing significant numbers of students exposed to college life," he said.
Middle college high schools send a higher percentage of graduates to college. In 1994, 71.4% of middle college high school graduates went on to higher education, compared with 53.2% of students at traditional high schools statewide, according to a California Postsecondary Education Commission report.
Students in the program also do well on standardized tests. Students at Orange Coast College, which will have 45 graduates this year, scored higher than the state average in all five subjects on the Stanford 9 test taken last spring. In two subjects--reading and language--Orange Coast students scored higher than did Orange County students attending traditional high schools.
To Battersbee, the reason for the success of middle college high schools is simple: "We're developing a total child, not just one who excels in academics. We're developing students who can survive, who know how to present their views and are confident they will be heard."