Erie Community College will continue through 2019 a partnership with Middle Early College High School that allows high school students to work toward a free associate’s degree at the same time they pursue a high school diploma.
But college officials said they need to see evidence that students in the program are performing well enough to renew the deal beyond 2019.
Middle Early College High School’s partnership with ECC, which dates to the high school’s start in 2003, frayed over the past few years amid concerns about finances and whether high school students were ready for college work.
The small high school, located inside the Bennett High School campus on Main Street, was designed for middle-of-the-road students as a way to inspire them and get them ready for college.
Students take only high school courses in their first year and then gradually progress to an entire course load of college work in the senior year. In a “fifth year,” the students can earn a free associate degree in criminal justice, physical education and recreation studies, business administration or building management and maintenance.
Some community leaders who had criticized the college for backing away from the partnership said this week that the extension through 2019 was a start.
“Would we have liked to have seen a longer commitment? We most certainly would have,” said Buffalo School Board member Sharon Belton-Cottman, who represents the Ferry District, where Middle Early College High School is located.
“I’m pleased that they are reconsidering,” said Belton-Cottman. “However, if you look at our data, it reflects that the majority of our students go to ECC. So if the college is not going to be loyal to Buffalo Public School children, we have to work on other avenues.”
ECC President Jack Quinn said the college had every intention of renewing its partnership with Middle Early College, but it needed to work out a few problems.
“I value our relationship with the Buffalo schools,” said Quinn. “They’re our main feeders.”
A main concern for some ECC faculty and administrators was whether the high school students, especially those taking courses on campus in their junior year, were ready for college-level work.
“The college experience is very different from the high school experience,” said Richard C. Washousky, ECC’s executive vice president of academic affairs. “Some of the students didn’t really know how to take it seriously. That was reflected in some of their GPAs.”
“Sometimes high school students really don’t know what they want to do and they don’t have the maturity to adapt to a college environment,” he added. “One of our concerns was the grade point average and the success.”
Principal Susan M. Doyle said most Middle Early College High School students are ready for college and perform as well or better than ECC students on the whole.
“Has everyone been successful? No. Have some kids taken longer? Yes,” said Doyle. “Our data has been good. It’s improved. It’s not perfect. We still have some work to do.”
College officials also said they struggled to receive prompt payment from Buffalo Public Schools to cover the cost of tuition and fees. The district has agreed to pay the college going forward based on a formula, as well as any arrears it owes, said Quinn.
Elena Cala, a Buffalo Public Schools spokeswoman, declined to comment, saying district officials have yet to fully review a new memorandum of understanding forwarded by the college. "Nothing is signed yet," she said.
Buffalo Public Schools paid a flat fee of $400,000 annually from 2012 to 2015. The arrangement for 2016 and in the future will be payments of net tuition and fees not covered by financial aid, plus an additional 10 percent of total tuition and fees, capped at $20,000.
“We didn’t want to end the program,” said Quinn. “No question finances were an important part of this, but only a part.”
Part of the Buffalo Public Schools payment will be used to support a case manager at ECC who works directly with Middle Early College High School staff and students.
What happens after August 2019 – when the new memorandum of understanding expires – will depend largely on whether student performance improves.
“I’d like to look at the metrics and learning outcomes and see if they’ve gotten stronger than in the past,” said Washousky. “There’s a big push in higher education today in ensuring that there’s learning outcomes, that your students are learning what you said they would learn. We have to be much more outcomes driven.”
Middle Early College programs have popped up across the state and country, and some have been hugely successful.
ECC sought to back out of the partnership a few years ago, so Doyle turned to SUNY Buffalo State, which stepped in to offer students a track to a four-year degree – albeit with the stipulation that the students pay their own way after the fifth year of Middle Early College High School. Buffalo State does not grant two-year associate’s degrees, an option some parents preferred.
“You’ve got to know who your child is. Every child is not a four-year college student,” said Belton-Cottman.
ECC has 37 seniors and 19 fifth-year students from Middle Early College High School enrolled this year. The college anticipates enrolling 46 seniors and 37 fifth-year students in 2017-18 and 46 fifth-year students in 2018-19. Another 32 Middle Early College seniors were attending Buffalo State College this year.