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Photos by Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Dr. Odelet Nance, an assistant dean of instruction at Vincennes University, talks with East Allen University freshman Talia Lawson, right, on Tuesday as students head in to have breakfast before their first period.

Early college school opens

Freshmen only for inaugural year at East Allen U

Yenni Saldana joins in an icebreaking exercise in her biology class where students form groups based on common interests and get to know each other.

– When Ari Foster, 15, told his parents he wanted to attend East Allen’s early college program this fall, they were ambivalent – wondering whether he would be up for the extended school day and higher-than-usual expectations.

But for Foster, the move was a no-brainer. Attending the new high school would help him earn college credit. Plus, with a 9 a.m. start time, he could sleep in more before school.

“It was a great opportunity,” said Foster, who attended New Haven Middle School last year. “To get two years of college out of the way is great, and I don’t want to pass that up.”

Foster was one of about 120 students who kicked off the school year at East Allen University on Tuesday – the first day back to school for East Allen County Schools.

The new early college program, set up in the back wing of the former Paul Harding High School, allows students to earn up to 62 college credits, or the equivalent of an associate’s degree, during their time in high school.

The program is affiliated with Vincennes University, which has a dean on site to verify that all college-level courses are taught with the appropriate vigor.

EAU Principal Doug Hicks, a former assistant principal at New Haven High School, said the day had gone without a hitch. He kicked off the morning with a doughnut breakfast in one of the school’s common spaces and closed the day with a convocation in which he explained the school’s goals and guidelines.

“I want the students and the staff to want to come to the school,” he said. “I want the students to feel like what they do is purposeful.”

In fall 2010, the EACS school board voted to close Harding High School, which at the time was struggling with low test scores, and decided to transform it into a magnet high school. The closure was part of a district redesign that also included the closure of several elementary schools.

This year, East Allen University only accepted freshman. But the school will add a grade each year until it includes grades 9-12.

Hicks said he wants his students to be responsible and take control of their own learning. Students in the university attend classes from 9 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. During their last period, they can either have tutoring or participate in intramurals or clubs.

Students take four courses and are expected to complete 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours of homework. Those whose family income qualifies them for free or reduced-priced lunch can take college credit for free.

Students are encouraged to use the wing’s common spaces to grab coffee and collaborate either before or after school.

But they’ll need to share the building. Part of the school will house about 250 seventh- and eighth-graders at Harding Junior High, who will have the first chance to apply to attend East Allen University when they reach ninth grade.

Hicks, who sat on the committee that came up with the idea for the program, said the early college program was designed with an eye toward benefiting the Harding community.

However, EACS board member Stephen Terry has questioned whether that’s the case, citing what he called the relatively few black students who chose to enroll.

Hicks said about 40 students from the Harding area chose to attend the school. In terms of racial percentages, he said about 61 percent of students are white, 19 percent are black, 9 percent are Hispanic, 7 percent are Asian and 4 percent are multiracial.

Students didn’t have to take a test to determine admission, Hicks said. But they needed to show a commitment to the school. He said many students from the Harding area chose not to enroll because they wanted to attend other high schools or because they wanted a chance to particulate in a more formal athletic program.

EACS Superintendent Karyle Green, who stopped by East Allen University on Tuesday, said the year had gotten off to a great start.

“The fact that we’ve opened a new program is just remarkable,” she said. “There has already been a lot of work by this point by the students. They have spent a lot of time together. And the collaboration we’ve had up to this point has really helped us.”

In addition to starting the early college program, Green said she was also excited the district would break ground on two building projects this year.

Construction on the Woodlan K-12 campus project is slated to begin in October, and construction at the Heritage K-12 campus site is planned to start in November.

She said she wasn’t sure how the district would be affected by the state voucher program or the increased number of local charter schools, but she said she should know in a matter of weeks.

Back at East Allen University, Foster agreed with Green’s assessment that the day was off to a good start. He said he knew about 20 people at the school and that so far he was getting along with most everyone.

“It’s going pretty good,” he said. “I’m nervous, but so is everybody else.”