Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette Members of East Allen University’s first graduating class walk the halls of Prince Chapman Academy elementary school last week – a processional meant to show young students that hard work in school can lead to success.
Sunday, May 29, 2016 10:03 am
New school's grads a step ahead
Jamie Duffy | The Journal Gazette
Senior Victoria Pflueger was skeptical when she heard about East Allen University, a new high school being established in her district offering a path to a college degree.
"It didn’t really sound all that interesting to me, and I didn’t want to leave the normal high school and my friends," recalled Pflueger, who at the time was an eighth-grader at Heritage Junior-Senior High School.
But her mother liked the idea of her getting college credits while in high school. And Pflueger learned that some of her friends were attending EAU, which had replaced Paul Harding High School in East Allen County Schools.
Pflueger will graduate Friday as salutatorian of EAU’s first graduating class. She will have a high school diploma and also an associate degree from Vincennes University, EAU’s partner school. Her college of choice, Grace College, accepted many of her credits.
Of the 77 students in EAU’s graduating class, 55 will receive an associate degree, having earned at least 60 college credits. Eight more will be able to walk across the aisle to get that degree because they have only one more credit to finish, said EAU principal Doug Hicks. Three quarters of the class are first-generation college students.
Emotions ran high as East Allen took the step in 2011 to close Harding, deemed a low-performing school by the state, recalled Terry Jo Lightfoot. She is the only current EACS board member who was on the board then.
"We had a choice," Lightfoot said. "We could be taken over by the state, or you could close the school completely, or you could close and reopen in a totally different concept."
The EACS board and administration knew the early-college concept was already a success for high school students at Ben Davis University in Indianapolis, Lightfoot said.
Hicks remembers naysayers four years ago when he was trying to build that first incoming freshman class. He was assistant principal at New Haven High School when he was given the task.
"I had multiple people telling me not to do it. Don’t take this job. Don’t try. There was a lot of doubt that it would fly," Hicks said. "My big piece was I believed in the product. Honestly, I thought that this was the wave of the future of education."
Hicks started visiting eighth-grade classes. The incoming freshman class in the fall of 2012 started with 117 students and the proviso that if the students didn’t like it, they could leave in a week or two.
He knew the big drawback for high school students would be leaving friends and traditional high school activities like competitive band and sports, which are not part of an early-college high school.
"One thing I sold them pretty hard was that they were always the seniors, the big kid on the block. We did all kinds of things – pizza, ice cream, we had a field day. We did a lot of different things to try to get them interested in staying."
Hicks said the support from Vincennes University has been crucial in running the school. Vincennes provided a dean, Odelet Nance, a site director, a secretary and two part-time tutors.
Nicole Winans, valedictorian, came from Central Christian School and loved EAU from the start, she said.
"It was all completely different to me because I came from an elementary school that only had 100 kids, but the fact that they were all my age was different," Winans said. There aren’t the same behavior problems you find at other high schools, she added, and the teacher support is "beyond any other school, I believe."
Because they were the first class in an experimental setting, the students are close to one another, said Winans, who is headed for IPFW on an academic scholarship. Her goal is to be a school administrator, but she will first be a math teacher, she said.
The majority of students are 21st Century Scholars, recipients of a state-based, income-based four-year scholarship at an Indiana private or public university for academically proficient high school students. That means their tuition is paid for, said Jason Bearce, associate commissioner for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.
The early-college model is "not only giving students who thought college wasn’t an option that opportunity. They’re leaving high school not only with the understanding that they can do the work, but with the credential," Bearce said.
East Allen University is one of four stand-alone early-college high schools in the state.
Ben Davis University and Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School, both in Indianapolis, are partnered with Vincennes University. EVSC Early College High School in Evansville partners with Ivy Tech and the University of Evansville, said Tyonka Rimawi, director of early college at the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis. The nonprofit organization is based at the University of Indianapolis and endorses early college high schools.
There are eight additional early-college high schools that function within an existing high school, and 90 schools that are in some state of implementation, all since 2007 when Ben Davis University opened, Rimawi said.
For students like Sa Are, 18, a Burmese immigrant who came to Fort Wayne when he was 12, the opportunity offered by EAU symbolized the reason his parents left behind the refugee camp of Nu Po in Thailand.
Are said he doesn’t really like school, but he has earned an associate degree. It fits his goal of working hard – he learned English by imitating his teachers and classmates – and eventually achieving his goal of being a computer scientist, starting at IPFW.
"I have never seen Sa do anything but study," said Hicks, his principal.
So, while the lack of athletics and band was enough for some students to stay at their home high school, Sa is not there for the sports and drama programs EAU added over the years.
"Because of the future," Sa says when asked why he studies so hard. "I don’t sleep until I finish everything."