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Local high school students get early start toward degrees

| Thursday, May 1, 2008

Some things in life are worth the sacrifice for Emily Cord -- like starting college with 31 credits.

The South Fayette High School senior only attends high school classes until 9 a.m. before heading to the Community College of Allegheny County West Hills Center.

"There's not a lot of time for a social life because of school, college and work. I just don't have the time," said Cord, 17, of South Fayette. "But I figured it would be easier to get a whole semester of college out of the way while still in high school.

"Plus now, I'm just used to college work instead of just high school-level stuff."

More than 46,000 high school students across Pennsylvania are accumulating college credits before receiving their high school diplomas. The state's Dual Enrollment program, introduced for the 2005-06 school year, allows students to get a taste of college, mostly on the state's dime.

The program is part of Project 720, a state Department of Education initiative to improve the high school experience. The program had $5 million in funding its first year, said department spokesman Michael Race. Because of its popularity, state lawmakers increased the program's budget to $10 million.

"It's a nice option for students to have, and we've received very positive feedback from parents," said Plum School District spokeswoman Dawn Check. "It's like they're happy the opportunity is there, even if their student isn't participating."

North Hills consistently is second only to Pittsburgh in the number of Allegheny County students who take advantage of the program, according to the Department of Education. North Hills enrolled 859 students in the program since the state began subsidizing it.

The idea of dual enrollment is nothing new to North Hills kids.

More than 25 years ago, North Hills became the first district in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio to forge a relationship with the University of Pittsburgh. Some teachers at North Hills Senior High School are certified as adjunct faculty at Pitt and teach courses, including chemistry and calculus, that give students college credit.

North Hills now has similar agreements with other area colleges and universities, including Carlow and Duquesne universities, and La Roche College.

While the curriculum isn't always more rigorous than that of an advanced placement class, many students prefer a semester-long journey to a one-shot AP test.

"The classes are trickier than normal classes, but they're worth it," said North Hills junior Mike Marsh, 17, of West View. "It's guaranteed college credits from Pitt, where if you have one bad day with AP, it can sink that whole year of work. The college credits are just fabulous."

They're also a boon for the colleges.

Paul Cukanna, director of admissions at Duquesne, said his university continues to enroll more academically motivated students.

Pine-Richland senior Jesse Soracco said getting some early college experience is worth every moment.

"You get a feel for what a community college is like, and get to work with a different body of students," said Soracco, 18, of Richland. "In my class, I had students from my high school, people just out of high school and people who had been in the work force for 10 years. It really opens your eyes."

"When they go to the college where they're actually sitting in the course with college students, they get a better feel of what their expectations will be," said Patty Scales, the grants and special projects coordinator for McKeesport Area School District.

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