RMU gives high schoolers taste of higher education

| Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Rose-Anne Vigilante studied Pam Rutherford's laptop computer screen, opened to a composition in progress.

“You want to state what the problem is,” the Robert Morris University instructor told Rutherford, who like the rest of her class was writing a story about a pet peeve. Vigilante critiqued each paper, and classmates reviewed each other's work.

The class wasn't at the RMU campus, but at nearby Moon Area High School on a Saturday morning. Rutherford, 17, is one of 15 Moon Area juniors taking a course for credit through RMU. Vigilante teaches the same course, Reading and Writing Strategies, to RMU freshmen on campus and to five juniors at Montour High School two evenings a week.

The Moon Area and Montour juniors in Vigilante's classes are the first students in RMU's First Semester College in High School Program, which began this fall.

Lawrence Tomei, the university's vice provost for academic affairs, developed the program in response to trustees' concerns about the rising costs of college tuition “and soaring debt” of college graduates.

“They said, ‘What's Robert Morris doing?' ” to help solve those problems, Tomei said.

The university already offered dual enrollment to high school students, as well as a college-to-high-school program in which high school teachers present college-level courses at high schools. Eight school districts participate in dual enrollment, and four districts are in the latter program.

But Tomei said he thought Robert Morris could do more, so the college classes at high schools began this fall offering students instruction at about 70 percent off the usual Robert Morris tuition costs. Instead of paying $2,100 a course, the high school students are paying less than $700, he said.

RMU invited several local districts to participate. Moon Area and Montour started this fall, and West Allegheny and South Fayette told Tomei they would consider beginning the program in the spring.

The university will invite more schools to participate starting next year, he said, including Hopewell, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Fort Cherry, North Hills, Sto-Rox, Mt. Lebanon, Carlynton and Sewickley Academy.

By taking one course each semester this year and next year, plus one next summer, the Moon Area and Montour students can graduate from high school with one semester of college courses completed at a cost of about $3,500.

The program offers five freshman-level courses that have no prerequisites, and that have histories of transferring to other colleges and universities.

“High school students have a hard time making the transition from high school to college,” Montour High School Principal Todd Price said. “This program will go a long way toward giving students an idea of what the expectations are” at the college level.

“We think it's going really well,” Moon Area High School Principal Barry Balaski said. The current course gives students college academic work, plus a laid-back, college-style classroom experience.

As the Moon Area students critiqued each other's papers during a class, Nick Jericho and Carol Nelson, both 16, of Moon, sat on a window ledge.

“Once you get started writing, it's not difficult,” Jericho said.

Nelson said Vigilante “gives a topic that is broad. It's a lot easier to think about things you have to write.”

The students liked the idea of leaving Moon Area with a semester's worth of college work completed.

College “is more competitive,” said Madison Martinez, 17, of Moon, who said many freshmen start college with some credits.

Moon Area High School is less than a mile from RMU on University Boulevard, so students easily can consult Vigilante during her office hours on campus. All the students also have Robert Morris student IDs, so they can use the university library for research.

Balaski said the First Semester program allows high school students to explore different areas of study without losing time if they change their minds about a field in which to major.

“I feel our job in high school is to expose our students to things so they make wise choices,” Balaski said.

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a freelance writer.

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