Mid-Columbia high schoolers off to a Running Start

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldApril 14, 2013 

Editor's note: Corrected to fix name misspelling.

Josue Cuevas says he couldn't handle being in a high school classroom anymore.

The former Wahluke High School student has attended classes through the Running Start program at Columbia Basin College for the past two years. When he had to attend a high school class recently, the difference from his college-level courses was palpable.

"It feels like so much time is wasted," Josue, 17, said of the pace.

More students each year are applying for the Running Start program, CBC officials said. The program has more than 680 students enrolled this spring and is one of the fastest growing groups of students at the college's Pasco campus.

The program allows high school juniors and seniors to attend classes at the state's community and technical colleges and some of its four-year universities so they can simultaneously earn college credit while working toward their high school diploma.

Students say they are drawn to the program's offerings of learning at a quicker pace and independently as well as classes more specific to their interests and possible future careers.

College officials said one of the biggest reasons for the program's growth could be its bargain for families, as they can save money on a future college education, even if a student only takes a quarter of classes.

"That's $1,000 worth of classes they don't ever have to take again (in college)," said CBC spokesman Frank Murray.

Students do have to meet certain criteria, such as being able to read at the college level, as well as testing into college-level language arts or math courses. While accepted students don't pay any tuition, they do have to pay college fees and for their books, as well as for any remedial courses they may take on campus.

Elizabeth Castro, a senior from Connell High School, said she was motivated to apply for Running Start after seeing her sister take part in the program.

"It helped her a lot in college," the 18-year-old said.

Josue, Elizabeth and Jacob Garcia, a senior at Chiawana High School in Pasco, said they've never regretted their choice to enroll in Running Start.

Josue said it expanded his horizons after attending a small rural high school in Mattawa. Elizabeth said she enjoyed the challenge of college-level courses, while Jacob said he likes having more responsibility for his education.

"It's helped me a lot to take stuff in my own hands," said Jacob, 18. "It's on you to keep up with the homework and read."

Cheryl Holden, CBC's director of high school programs, said she's never seen interest wane in Running Start in her 12 years overseeing the program, which began as part of the state's Learning by Choice law passed by the Legislature in 1990.

Student testing to enter the program regularly brings in more than 900 applicants a year, and information meetings for parents continue to draw record crowds.

"It was standing-room only and almost out past the door," Holden said of one recent high school meeting.

While the number of students enrolling in Running Start is regularly increasing, the number of credits those students are taking is climbing more rapidly, meaning they're getting more college-level classes out of the way.

It's possible for Running Start students to earn an associate's degree along with their high school diploma, though it means taking almost all their classes at CBC.

The state also benefits financially from the program. The state typically budgets for a student to have eight years of high school and higher education. Running Start can trim the amount of money needed to get a student a college degree at a public university, sometimes by as much as is needed to pay for four semesters of study, Holden said.

Districts that have students enrolled in Running Start must pay the community and technical colleges for those students' college-level classes.

The Kennewick School District paid almost $800,000 to CBC for the more than 200 Kennewick students enrolled in the program for the 2011-12 school year. Pasco schools paid more than $621,000 and Richland $692,000 that same year.

Teri Kessie, principal at Chiawana High School in Pasco, said about 100 of her students are enrolled in Running Start.

Chiawana offers a number of other options for students wanting more challenging academics, such as Advanced Placement classes and Tech Prep, which offers a form of post-secondary career and technical education for high school students. However, some students prefer the college environment while their families like the future savings when it comes to paying for college.

"This isn't always the right option for a student but for some it is," Kessie said.

Kennewick's Superintendent Dave Bond said Running Start doesn't have a big effect on the district's budget, largely because administrators plan to not have to provide teachers for those juniors and seniors. He said he also appreciates the opportunities the program creates, just like Phoenix High School, the district's alternative high school, or the Mid-Columbia Parent Partnership, another alternative program.

"It's another option for kids," he said.

Bond and others said Running Start isn't for everyone. Parents have to place a high amount of trust in their students to be self-motivated at the college level. The program also can make it difficult for students to take part in some activities at their home school, such as sports.

Those concerns haven't mattered to Josue, Elizabeth and Jacob. All three are on track to earn their associate's and have plans to attend a four-year university or other professional program.

"I feel like it was easier for me to grow," Josue said.

And Josue's family has taken their dedication a step further: they've recently moved to Pasco to make it easier for their younger children to be in Running Start.

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