Days before the start of the new academic year, Middle Early College High School looks as if the students never left the building.
Signs congratulate National Honor Society inductees, press clippings laud the talents of Academic All-Star athletes, and there are pictures of practically every class of students since the 2006-07 school year.
But when classes start Tuesday, Middle Early College – located in Bennett High School – will be a different version of itself.
New students will not – at least for now – have the option of a earning a free two-year associate degree from Erie Community College in five years while getting their high school diploma. That is because ECC has been backing out of its partnership with the Buffalo Public Schools over the last few years, district and other officials say.
The relationship soured when accusations surfaced about an ECC instructor failing an entire class of students and another being photographed asleep in class, and of the college offering students fewer courses.
As a result, district officials have forged a new partnership with SUNY Buffalo State. But while that initiative would put students on track for a four-year degree, many could end up paying tuition, depending on how long it takes them to finish, instead of getting the free two-year degree and jump-start on a career that was the hallmark of the original Middle Early College program.
Some parents and district leaders are not happy. “Unfortunately, they (Buffalo State) do not offer an associate’s. Most parents would prefer to have that option. ECC made that option unavailable,” said Buffalo School Board member Sharon M. Belton-Cottman, who represents the Ferry District, where Middle Early College is located. “I have a concern that ECC would turn its back on the children of BPS, considering that they are one of the largest – if not the largest – recipient of our students.”
Asked several times for comment, ECC officials would say only that the college wants to help Middle Early College students, as it has in the past, and that conversations continue about the program’s future.
Middle Early College opened in 2003 as an option to inspire middle-of-the-road students. They enroll as freshmen with grade-point averages between 65 and 85. Freshmen are in classes from 8:15 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. – with only a half-hour lunch break – so they “feel” the rigor of college life from the get-go, said Principal Susan M. Doyle. “These are C, D kids. We don’t take honors kids. We don’t take failing kids,” Doyle said.
Freshmen take only high school courses before gradually taking on college courses so that by their senior year, their entire course load is college-level work. They finish in five years with both a high school diploma and a free associate degree from ECC in criminal justice, physical education and recreation studies, business administration, or building management and maintenance.
But over the summer, it was decided that only members of this year’s senior class can finish up in ECC’s five-year program. They also can opt for Buff State, which has been phasing into the Middle Early College program as ECC has been phasing out.
School officials said that no incoming high school students will be enrolled in the ECC program, although ECC officials say they are still pondering the relationship and the district has put forth a three-year proposal – though it mentions only current high school seniors as having the option of finishing at ECC.
Doyle said 40 of the seniors will finish up at ECC, while 32 others chose the Buffalo State route. Those students can enroll as freshmen with about 50 credits or transfer the credits to other State University of New York schools, said John F. Siskar, senior adviser for Buffalo State’s Center for Excellence in Urban and Rural Education.
“As far as general education credits – the majority of what they take with us – all that transfers,” Siskar said. “So they can theoretically finish college in two years.”
But in reality, he added, when major course requirements are factored in, it may take an extra semester or two to fulfill all of the requirements for a four-year degree. And at that point, the college courses are no longer free, as they were in the ECC program.
Still, the Buffalo State route is a good option for many of the students, Siskar said.
“We’re talking first-generation college students, low income, 76 percent African-American, 11 percent Latino/Latina. … Students that very few others are reaching, and certainly nobody’s reaching en masse,” he said, adding that when financial support through Say Yes to Education is factored in, “we’re not talking about huge out-of-pocket expenses.”
“It’s not that it’s not still challenging for the kids and their families, but it’s a lot more manageable,” he said.
Meanwhile, ECC has been backing out of the program gradually for about the last five years, Buffalo school district officials said. It began around the time a “very eccentric and very bizarre” ECC art teacher failed every single Middle Early College student in her class, Doyle said. The impact was bad. “This is on their college transcript, so, of course, the repercussions were awful,” she said.
Doyle then began noticing other signs that the relationship with ECC was collapsing and it was time to set up alternatives.
“Some things started changing there, (like), ‘We’re not going to be able to offer you chemistry anymore. We’re not going to be able to offer you art,’ ” Doyle said. “… So it was really when ECC made the change that I moved to D’Youville, and we started doing art and chemistry with D’Youville. So then we had two college partners at that time.”
However, problems continued with ECC, Doyle said. They couldn’t find enough staff to teach the kids, and Doyle and parents say the college complained that the district wasn’t reimbursing it in a timely fashion for Buffalo Public Schools students’ tuition. Their grades also weren’t good.
But Doyle said a major problem was that the students were not challenged and recalled an incident when students actually took a picture of a professor sleeping in class. “The kids sent it to me. They’re like, ‘This is our teacher,’ ” she said. “And, of course, they’re not engaged.”
But ECC argued that the kids’ grades were terrible and that they shouldn’t be on a college campus, Doyle said. “They would look at the data, and to me, you can make data say whatever you want it to say,” she said, emphasizing that the program is not for high achievers.
“We take those kids that could go this way or they could soar, and we really try to get them enough supports to make them soar and to help them to soar, let them know, ‘You are capable, You can do this.’ ”
As the relationship continued to deteriorate, Doyle said, ECC dropped two classes at the last minute a few years ago, shortly before the summer session was slated to start. In a panic, she turned to Marsha D. Jackson, Buffalo State vice president for student affairs, and was introduced to Siskar.
That summer semester, Buffalo State professors taught three classes. Then, two years ago, Buffalo State welcomed its first group of Middle Early College students to the campus, Siskar said.
“That started the transition from ECC to Buff State,” he said.
Since then, the partnership has evolved. New this year, Buffalo State will offer an Academic Support Tutoring Center with a full-time staffer who can address Middle Early College students’ needs and work with them on the college campus as well as at the high school. And the college will provide extra tutoring in biology, criminal justice and geography, “some of the courses we know that are challenging,” Siskar said.
In addition, Buffalo State has a team constantly reviewing the program to prepare students and modify it where necessary, Siskar said, like developing a new preparatory chemistry class after finding many of the students were struggling with that subject.
“Buffalo State is committed to us,” Belton-Cottman said, “and that will make the difference.”