Saturday, June 13, 2015

Rockford School District poses a hurdle to 'Running Start' program, say Rock Valley College trustees - News - Rockford Register Star - Rockford, IL

 

  • By Corina Curry and Isaac Guerrero
    Rockford Register Star

    Posted Jun. 13, 2015 at 11:16 AM
    Updated at 2:46 PM

    ROCKFORD — Rock Valley College trustees want the Rockford School District to increase its participation in a dual credit program that allows students to earn a high school diploma and an associate's degree simultaneously.
    Running Start is among several programs available to high school students in the Rockford area that provide an affordable path to higher education, an attractive perk for a region where about 20 percent of adults have a bachelor's degree, roughly six points below the national average.
    Rock Valley's program is especially attractive because it literally gives academically-eligible students a running start on their path to a college degree and students pay no tuition for their first two years of college.
    A school district must pay Rock Valley $5,500 a year for every student it sends to Running Start, and therein lies the rub.
    The Rockford School District spends $165,000 on Running Start tuition for the 30 high school students it sends to the program each year. In Belvidere, district officials fork over close to $500,000 a year for 90 students to attend Rock Valley instead of one of the district's two high schools. Other districts in the region participate with a handful of students each year, while some don't participate at all.
    Last month, Rock Valley trustees postponed approval of an extension of the Running Start agreement with the Rockford School District and told college administrators to negotiate a better deal with the district. The district's 30-student limit prevented 15 students from enrolling in Running Start who had met the academic requirements and tested into the program for the 2015-16 school year.
    "We were under the impression that when we renewed the contract, the district would be increasing those numbers,” Rock Valley trustee Patrick Murphy said. “We want to see more of their kids in Running Start. It's my understanding that the issue is cost. ... It's putting politics and money ahead of children's futures. If you really want to transform the community, why not give students a head start on college?”
    District officials, however, contend that Murphy's interest in getting the Rockford School District to send more students to Rock Valley for their junior and senior years has more to do with the college's desire to increase revenue and address declining enrollment than what's best for kids. Enrollment has fallen at Rock Valley five years in a row.
    "We have a lot of good partnerships with Rock Valley College, and a long history of partnerships with RVC," Rockford School Board member Tim Rollins said. "It's always disappointing when someone decides that we can’t make our own decisions based on what we believe is in the best interests of our students."
    Increased participation in Running Start doesn't just cost districts money. It also makes it harder for them to offer Advanced Placement and honors courses to high-performing students who remain in district schools. And it reduces student-to-teacher ratios, Rollins said, which affects cost efficiency.
    Page 2 of 4 - "We believe there is a way to give our students a head start on college through options like dual credit courses and AP courses that make financial sense for us, financial sense for parents and allow us to offer a full range of robust coursework at our high schools," he said.
    A further concern for the Rockford district is the cost of Running Start. Tuition at Rock Valley is $101 a credit hour, they point out. Rock Valley students who take a full load of courses — 30 credit hours a year — would pay roughly $3,000 in tuition, far less than the $5,500-per-student cost of Running Start. But Running Start is not a moneymaker for the college, Rock Valley administrators say. Tuition doesn't cover the full cost of educating a student; property tax revenue and state aid help foot the bill. Although Rock Valley does receive per-pupil state aid for each Running Start participant, there is a two-year delay between the time the student enrolls and when the college receives the cash.
    Ultimately, the Running Start debate comes down to this: Who gets to decide how many students can join a program that, though not suited for every student, offers a big savings of time and money on the path to a college degree.
    “The question is: Should Rockford School District sacrifice some dollars for the greater good of the community?” Murphy said. “Running Start isn't for every student. But it should be up to the parent and the student to decide if it's right and if they want to participate. That's not a decision that should be made by the bureaucrats at RVC or the School District."
    Participation varies
    Participation in Running Start varies from district to district across the region.
    Harlem School District used to send 10 students a year to the program, but budget woes prompted the district to suspend its involvement this year. Same goes for the Byron School District. Hononegah has never participated in Running Start because administrators there feel it's more appropriate to offer students AP and honors classes.
    About 125 students from six school districts in Boone and Winnebago counties participated in Running Start during the school year that recently ended, said Susan Busenbark, vice president of liberal arts and sciences at Rock Valley. Belvidere School District sends the most students by far — between 80 and 100 students a year since 2009.
    Trustees can't force Rockford School District, or any district, to maximize student participation in Running Start or to participate in the program at all, said Rock Valley trustee Lynn Kearney. Voters elect school board members to make those decisions, she said.
    Michael Connor, a Rockford School Board member, said he understands the concerns of both the Rockford School District and Rock Valley.
    Page 3 of 4 - "I think it makes sense why RVC trustees think there should be broader participation, and I think it makes sense for (the Rockford School District) to take a more focused approach to its participation," Connor said. "I don't think this decision is just about the money, and it shouldn't be just about the money for parents. People should be giving real thought to the environment and the social and total academic development of the child.
    "If the trustees want more involvement, then that's a two-way discussion. Is there something we can do about the cost? Most of this is about sitting down and discussing options and doing what's best for the community."
    Lowering the cost of participation could be an option if it helps increase the number of students allowed in the program.
    "I'm open to it," said Frank Haney, RVC board chairman. "I know there are others on the board who are open to it. We want to do what's best for the student."
    The cost factor
    The Rockford School District is working to provide opportunities for students of all academic levels to get a jump-start on post-high school endeavors, said David Carson, the district's executive director of college and career readiness.
    That means offering Running Start, as well as career-based education, AP classes and dual-credit classes at both Rock Valley and district high schools in which students earn college and high school credit at the same time. Rockford limits its Running Start participation to students pursuing an associates in science or associate in engineering science degree.
    "We see value in all of these programs," Carson said. "In Running Start, you’re essentially producing a student who is going off and earning an associate's at age 18. There are advantages to that, but there are also developmental challenges with that. They’re that much further in their educational career. That presumes they’re that much more ready for that career to start. That can be really tough on a student."
    There's a financial downside for districts, too.
    "For every student in Running Start, that's another $5,500 out of our budget," Carson said. "That’s $5,500 that isn’t being used collectively for the betterment of all kids."
    Internal costs haven't been a problem in Belvidere, said Superintendent Michael Houselog.
    Belvidere takes the money it receives from the state for its Running Start students, about $6,000 per child, and sends $5,500 of it to RVC instead of spending it at Belvidere schools, Houselog said. Initially, Running Start costs were absorbed by reducing the number of extra classes being taught by district teachers.
    "We continue to offer what we offered before at the high schools," Houselog said. "We may offer some courses less — once every other year as opposed to every year. Over time, students still can take that class."
    Page 4 of 4 - The district has enrolled nearly 300 students in Running Start the past seven years.
    "We’re all in," Houselog said. "We have made all of the programs open to Belvidere students, and we put no limits on anything. Every year, we've had 40 to 50 students who qualify and pass the placement test.
    "We decided early on that we were going to base our decision on the wishes of our students and families."
    The union factor
    Cost aside, Running Start may pose an additional concern for some school districts: It threatens, or is perceived to threaten, the power of teachers unions.
    Running Start students don't attend the local high school; they take all of their high school and associate's degree coursework at Rock Valley. So a district that sends 30 students to Running Start may need one fewer teacher on its payroll, assuming a high school needs to employ one teacher for every classroom of 30 students.
    “I have heard that concern,” Busenbark said.
    Pressure from the teachers union is much less of a concern in Rockford than the disparity between the cost of tuition at RVC and the cost of Running Start.
    Paul Goddard, vice president of the Rockford Education Association, said the School District's main priority should be "being good stewards of the money we have and marshaling resources so it makes sure prices fit within its priorities."
    A high-quality high school education for all students should be paramount among those priorities, Goddard said.
    "There is a really profound and historic national conversation going on right now about education and preparation for career and citizenship in life, and (the Rockford School District) has been way out in the forefront of that conversation with what we're doing with academies and developing career paths," Goddard said. "These are tremendous changes that the academies represent and fantastic opportunities for kids."
    Corina Curry: 815-987-1371; ccurry@rrstar.com; @corinacurry
    Isaac Guerrero: 815-987-1361; iguerrero@rrstar.com; @isaac_rrs
  • By Corina Curry and Isaac Guerrero
    Rockford Register Star

     

Rockford School District poses a hurdle to 'Running Start' program, say Rock Valley College trustees - News - Rockford Register Star - Rockford, IL