Nevin Villalongo is just starting his junior year at Westfield Preparatory High School. Though he’s just 17, Nevin is planning a career as a heart surgeon — and his mom, Patrice Clark, says he also dreams of playing for the NBA. Because he knows that physicians spend a lot of time in higher education, Nevin is doing something very smart right now: he’s earning his high school diploma and an associate degree simultaneously through an innovative program called Early College.
The Early College program is just one of the reasons Clark says she chose to send Nevin to Westfield Preparatory High School, a tuition-free charter public school for grades 7-12 in Redford Charter Township.
“I was looking outside of my son’s neighborhood school for a place that offered additional programs and different electives, a school that would have more opportunities for him,” says Clark. “I attended a parent orientation, heard the administration speak about the school and all of its opportunities, including clubs, tutoring and student travel, and I said in my mind, ‘Whatever this school is doing, I want to be a part of it.’”
Nevin has jumped in deep at Westfield, taking a wide variety of electives including Spanish, media technology, foundations of art, in addition to his core classes. But what impressed Clark so much was the opportunity for Nevin to earn 60 college credits and an associate degree from Wayne County Community College District — at no cost.
“I know Nevin will continue his education and graduate with less student loan debt because of Early College,” Clark says. “And it’s statistically shown that the children in these programs do go on to complete their (bachelor’s) degree. They successfully transition into a (four-year college or university). The transition is seamless and the kids do really well in it.”
How Early College works at Westfield Preparatory
At Westfield, students can begin Early College as early as ninth grade by taking one college-level class, after completing an application process with an Early College adviser to determine if they are ready for this experience, says Samantha Lynch, Middle School Dean at Westfield. Students who enter the Early College program go on to include college-level courses in their high school schedules, and the classes are taught by professors who come to Westfield specifically to teach Early College students.
By the time students get to their senior year, they may take some classes right at their community college and, in their fifth year of high school, they’re effectively on campus full time, taking classes with other college students. At the end of the fifth year, Early College students graduate with their high school diploma and an associate degree or specialized certificate at the same time. The program is cost-free for students, and even their college textbooks are free.
Clark says it was important for Nevin to have full buy in, given the commitment required to be successful in Early College.
“I had a conversation with my son and explained what it was all about and how it worked with a degree,” Clark says. “Each parent has to figure out if their child can handle the college classes along with the dual core classes. Nevin was excited about it. He said, ‘You are telling me I can take college courses in high school and get my diploma and earn an associate degree, too?’”
In Nevin’s case, he’ll have earned the first half of a four-year bachelor’s degree at the end of his Early College experience. That makes a big difference to any student, but especially when your goal is to be a heart surgeon, Clark says. Students can launch directly into a career or transfer their credits to one of Michigan’s four-year colleges or universities.
Full support and high expectations
What makes the Early College program so successful is the level of support students receive every step of the way, Lynch says. “The college professors come onto our campus and that provides extra stepping stones for our students. We don’t throw them onto a community college campus,” she explains, adding that even when students are in their fifth year and attending most, if not all, classes at WCCCD, the Westfield Early College advisor still maintains close contact with them. “That’s a vital role and they are constantly calling or texting, and are in continual communication with these kids and their parents.”
The coursework of Early College students is identical to that of regular WCCCD students and they are treated and graded the same way. And, because Westfield Preparatory High School focuses on future college attendance for every student, even those who don’t elect to participate in Early College are expected to achieve.
Each student must complete an AP course and each student is required to receive a letter of admission from at least one four-year college or university prior to graduation — and there’s plenty of support with college applications, the FAFSA and other financial aid applications, which is especially beneficial for first-generation college hopefuls.
“The AP credit requirement is shared with our students from day one,” Lynch says, adding that AP courses are typically taken by 11th and 12th grade students and educators at Westfield leave the decision whether or not to take the AP exam for college credit up to each family.
“Our expectations with Westfield Preparatory students go hand in hand with college expectations,” Lynch says. “Students must pass with a C-minus or higher, just like at the college level. And, our behavioral expectations are different from those at surrounding schools. We tell our students that it’s their job to come to school and be a scholar. Even if they are an athlete, they are a scholar first. It’s neat to see them go from our expectations as a college prep school to Early College or college and know that expectations haven’t changed.”
Because it is a charter public school authorized by Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office, Westfield Preparatory High School can provide robust support to college-going students, including immersive programs and scholarship funding.
“GVSU provides campus tours for our students, which is important especially for those who might be unsure about what college looks like,” Lynch says. “For a lot of our students who tour GVSU, it’s generally one of their first times on a college campus.” Educators, too, receive ongoing professional development and tuition assistance to continue their own studies at Grand Valley.
Even Westfield Preparatory’s middle school students work toward eventual higher education and are encouraged to think beyond 12th grade, Lynch says.
“Our middle school students are just 12 and 13 years old, but I remind them of the expectations at Westfield and push them to excel and think ahead about what they want to do,” she says. “Without these conversations, they don’t understand the why behind what is happening. If they push back and say it’s ‘just’ high school, I impress upon them that no, at Westfield Preparatory High School, there are opportunities for you!”
Content sponsored by Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office. Learn more at gvsu.edu/cso.