Nathan Breitling

BRIGHT — Nathan Breitling, vice president of Honors Pathway, introduced the program at February’s high school board meeting.

At its board meeting on Jan. 19, the board of the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) approved an intriguing new program called Microcollege, which helps high school seniors with marginal grades prepare for college. 

Microcollege, which is run by a private company called Honors Pathway, takes advantage of a little-known part of the California Education Code that allows students who are enrolled in continuation schools to stay in high school for a fifth year.

West county students who sign up for Microcollege will be enrolled at Laguna High School, the district’s continuation school, for their fifth and final year, but would attend college-level classes, taught by college professors, on the Microcollege campus in Santa Rosa.

Microcollege classes are similar to the basic introductory classes that most students take in their freshman year of college. These classes are accompanied by intensive tutoring to improve the students’ academic skills and get them ready to go to a real college the following year.

WSCUHSD Superintendent Toni Beal said she finds the program appealing because it’s an innovative way to serve a group of students that often fall through the cracks. 

“It’s tapping a group of students that we don’t yet offer services for,” she said. “It’s targeting C and sometimes D students who would like to go to college but are apprehensive about going. Often kids like these go to the JC and take a couple classes. Then they feel totally overwhelmed and they say, ‘This is not for me.’ And they drop out. This program gives them intensive tutoring and wraparound services so that they can learn how to be successful.”

The program will be open to two groups of seniors: those who, despite poor grades, have enough credits to graduate and those who don’t have enough credits to graduate.

This second group will earn both high school and college credit for the work they do in Microcollege next year, allowing them to get a high school diploma from Laguna High School, as well as college credit. 

All students who complete the Microcollege program will end up with college credits that are transferable to any junior college, state college or university in California.

“This is a dual enrollment program for students who are college capable, but who may not yet be college ready,” said Honors Pathway vice president Nathan Breitling. “It turns out that there are a number of students who fit that profile in our state. Students who go off to college, who are not yet college ready, have very low chances of graduating with a college degree in a reasonable amount of time period, and too often they’re left with debt, and no degree,” he said. “It turns out that if you can get a student through that first year though, they have a very, very good chance of becoming a successful college graduate.”

The Microcollege program, which started out in Oakland and Sacramento, is free to both the students and the school district. Since students are enrolled in the district’s continuation school, the district collects ADA (average daily attendance) money for each student from the state. In west county, that comes to around $10,000 per student per year. The district passes 98% of that money along to Microcollege, holding back 2% (or about $200 per child) for the district. Given that they only expect to enroll about 30 students in the program this year, that’ll mean about $6,000 for the district.

Microcollege uses its 98% to pay for teachers and materials, as well as a facility. It also reimburses the district for the cost of a half-time coordinator to deal with attendance and other administrative support. Because the Windsor School District has also signed on to the Microcollege program this year, Beal said she hopes the two schools can share one administrator.

“The program is completely free,” Breitling said at the meeting. “Free including all fees, free including all textbooks, free including a laptop computer that students can take with them when the program is over.”

Despite its name, Microcollege is not an online program.

“These courses are taught in person,” Breitling said. “This is not an online program. We believe in preparing students to succeed at traditional colleges and universities. That means that we have to prepare them to succeed in the classroom, in the office hour and in the study hall. So these are all in-person courses.”

The professor to student ratio is about 30 to 1.

In addition to the professor, “For every cohort of 30 or so students, there’s a student success manager who’s a cross between a college counselor and guidance counselor and social worker, because it’s not just cognitive or academic elements that cause students to fall behind. Sometimes it’s things that are happening outside of class,” Breitling said.

“In addition, for every single cohort, we have two academic coaches — one in mathematics, one in writing and humanities — to support the students,” he said.

Breitling described the life of a Microcollege student this way: 

“You go to school; you take your college classes in the morning; you have lunch; and then you’re in a structured study hall where you have a 10 to one ratio of either counselors or tutors working on with you on your assignments. Each student receives over 500 hours of coaching and support, annually.

“We also offer a college success seminar for students, where we ensure that students gain all of the skills, the executive functioning and the independent learning habits that are necessary for them to succeed in college,” Breitling said.

How can they offer so much on such a small budget?

“A Microcollege site is not a comprehensive campus,” he said. “We don’t have rock climbing walls, we don’t have gymnasiums, we don’t have sororities or fraternities. We have classrooms and study halls — that’s what we do.”

Beal said she was initially skeptical about the program because it seemed too good to be true.

“I looked at this program long and hard,” she said. “I met with the administrators, and I was like, ‘Is there something wrong here? Are we missing something? Is this too good to be true?’ But no, we weren’t missing anything. Then it went to the counselors … and then there were presentations to the teachers. And everyone that I’ve talked to is in agreement: This is a great program and a wonderful opportunity for our kids,” she said. “I’m personally very excited about it.”

Now that the board has approved the program, representatives from Honors Pathway will begin doing Microcollege presentations for students and their families in March. 

The Microcollege program, which runs for 11 months, will start in July and run through May of next year.

“It’s not going to be right for every student but for those students who really want to go to college and who aren’t as prepared as they wish they were, this can be a really great way to spend a year,” Breitling said.

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