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— Kalamazoo County’s nine school districts are launching a new program in which students can earn a degree or certificate from Kalamazoo Valley Community College during a “13th grade” in high school.

Known as Early/Middle College, tuition and fees will be paid by school districts, which will collect the state’s per-pupil foundation allowance for those students.

The Schoolcraft and Gull Lake school districts are piloting the program this school year. It is tentatively scheduled to be implemented in fall 2015 at the other seven districts — Kalamazoo, Portage, Vicksburg, Comstock, Parchment, Galesburg-Augusta and Climax-Scotts.

“Since college education is more important and more expensive than ever, we believe this will be a potentially powerful option for students,” said David Campbell, superintendent of the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency.

In essence, the superintendents said, the Early/Middle College program is an expansion of dual enrollment, the program that allows Michigan high school students to take college classes for free.

The big difference from dual enrollment: Rather than take random classes for college credit, Early/Middle College students will focus on a specific program of study. Also, they will delay high school graduation for a year, and they will use that fifth year of high school to potentially earn an associate’s degree or vocational certificate from KVCC.

While it will take those students five years to graduate from high school, once they do, they’ll be ready to enter the workforce in a skilled trade or transfer to a four-year college as a junior.

Carrie Pickett-Erway, president/CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, said she and others see Early/Middle College as a critical part of efforts to create a “cradle-to-career” education system in Kalamazoo County.

The program “is a direct path from high school to college to jobs in high demand,” Pickett-Erway said.

It’s also a big deal for students who want to earn a four-year degree, she said.

“It gives kids up to two years of college they don’t have to pay for,” Pickett-Erway said. “That’s a huge head start.”

Campbell and Pickett-Erway said local officials have talked for years about having an Early/Middle College.

EMC “is something many people have been trying to bring to life for almost 10 years, but it’s always gotten stalled at different points because of funding or infrastructure issues,” she said.

What made a difference this time: The Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo, which is operated through the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, kicked in $150,000 for the planning process, and KVCC, KRESA and the Lumina Foundation also offered support.

Washtenaw County has had an Early/Middle College for years, but now such programs “are popping up all over the place,” Campbell said, thanks to changes in state regulations that make it easier for students to qualify for dual enrollment during a fifth year of high school.

“The whole concept is to stretch the system” of public education, Campbell said. “We’ve in effect added a grade for 4-year-olds by increasing funding for preschool. Now we’re adding a 13th grade.”

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