Dual enrollment thrives in the Central Valley, where few earn college degrees

Faith Serna said it was hard to imagine herself going away from home for college before she took college courses at her high school, Wonderful College Prep Academy, a charter school in Delano. Now that she’s home to graduate high school with an associate’s degree, she’s setting her sights on attending college at UCLA or a private college.

“Now I am not afraid of going to college,” she said. “It made me more comfortable.”

For many who live in the area served by the Kern Community College District, college can feel remote – and it is. The county spans an area larger than West Virginia that includes the San Joaquin Valley, the eastern Sierra and the Mojave Desert. It is served by only one public university, Cal State Bakersfield. High school seniors in this area are less likely to attend college than most in the state.

“We’re not a college district,” said Kaylee Campbell, director of dual enrollment programs for the college district.

She said enrolling high school students in college courses encourages all students to see themselves as “college subjects”. The district targeted dual enrollment courses in rural communities where students were less likely to commit to college.

This is why the Kern Community College District has one of the most comprehensive and fastest growing dual enrollment programs in the state. There were 8,086 students enrolled in high schools in the fall of 2021, making it second in size to the Los Angeles Community College District.

The dual enrollment program is notable not only for its massive size but for its success in enrolling large numbers of Latino high school students.

Dual enrollment has been increasing across California over the past six years, but who takes these undergraduate courses varies across the state. A recent EdSource analysis of dual enrollment programs at community colleges found that most districts enroll a lower percentage of Black and Latino students than in high schools within their borders. Fifty-nine of the 72 analyzed districts have a lower percentage of Latino high school students.

Although dual enrollment programs exist in most of the district’s high schools, Campbell credits the district’s success with initiating the program in Kern County’s rural Latino communities. In California, 35% of adults over 25 have a bachelor’s degree; In Kern County, it’s 17%.

rural expansion

Attending college is an extraordinary feat in Arvin, a small, predominantly Latino farming town at the base of the San Joaquin Valley where only 2% of adults have a bachelor’s degree.

Professor Helen Acosta teaches freshmen at Arvin High how to research and speak with confidence in college-level public speaking courses. She notes that the message her students get about college is very different from what she heard growing up as an average white kid whose parents attended college.

“I just knew I was going to college, and there was no other choice. It didn’t have to be cool,” said Acosta, chair of communications at Bakersfield College. “I live for the day when kids in Arvine knew they were going to college, And they know they don’t have to be exceptional to go to college.”

In 2015, Kern County began rolling out dual enrollment programs as part of a larger push into rural communities. Called Rural Initiatives, the goal of the effort was to bring the college directly to communities, such as Delano, Irvine, McFarland, Wasco, and Shafter, where college enrollment rates are particularly low and bachelor’s degrees are rare. One way to do this was to bring the college onto high school campuses. Today dual enrollment has its largest presence at rural universities where students choose a range of courses from skills training to liberal arts.

High school students can complete the entire associate degree, which requires 60 units with a minimum GPA of 2.0, without leaving the high school campus. They usually do this by taking a range of classes during the day, after school, and during the summer. Some of these courses earn student credit in high school and college simultaneously.

At some schools, every freshman is put on track to complete at least nine college credits by graduation. During the 2021-22 school year, 71.2% of McFarland High School students and 57.1% of Delano High School students are enrolled in college courses.

These are largely agricultural communities where the student community is almost always Latino. The students’ parents speak Spanish and have not attended college. Poverty rates are high—in Irvine, 32% and in McFarland, 29%, according to census data—and many students feel pressured to start earning a paycheck quickly.

Courtesy of Faith Serna

Faith Serna is a senior at Wonderful College Prep Academy in Delano

Go ahead

Many see dual enrollment as a path to a better life. Money is tight in Serna’s family of six girls who are supported by her truck driver father.

“We are a low-income family,” Serna said. “We are thinking about our future.”

Taking college courses early can have an immediate impact on the way students see themselves. Serna said the college-level courses, such as history, opened her mind in ways that classes at the high school level did not. The leadership and agricultural business courses helped her become more confident and a better communicator.

Enrollment in college courses instills a strong sense of pride among students who are the first in their families to attend college.

Daylarlyn Gonzalez took an Acosta course her freshman year at Arvin High. She laughs as she describes the course as “torture.” She said she’s pushed by knowing it will pay off in the future and make her family proud. But after just one semester, she says she feels like she’s really growing.

“These classes make me go to a higher level,” said Gonzalez.

Dual enrollment students enter the workforce in Kern County. Brianna Zatarain graduated from Cal State Bakersfield this spring in just three years—an accomplishment she attributes to the undergraduate courses she took in high school. During the school day, Zatarin and her classmates were at the Robert F. Kennedy High School in Delano are adjacent to the Bakersfield College campus for undergraduate courses.

Zatarin now works as a reading assistant at an elementary school in nearby McFarland. She is working towards a master’s degree in education while many of the students who started undergraduate studies with her did not complete their undergraduate studies.

“Taking dual classes helped me advance in the game,” Zaatrine said.

Emma Gallegos / EdSource

Brianna Ztarin, center, with her mother, Marilyn Gonzalez-Ztarin, and father, Sebastian Ztarin.

On track to earn a degree

As dual enrollment first started in high schools, undergraduate courses were limited and demand was high. But with each passing year, high schools in the Kern Community College District offer more undergraduate courses at the high school curriculum level and more paths to an associate degree or certificate.

Serna and her older sister took classes in the first dual enrollment track offered at Wonderful College Prep Academy, an associate’s degree in agricultural business, but she’s happy to see that her younger sisters will have more options, such as education and health care. She is also happy that there will be more spots available on these trails. Demand outpaced the slots, making track access competitive.

Campbell said the community college district strives to make sure offerings are not reserved for honors students or exceptional students. But putting that principle into practice is a tricky balance, especially when there are more applications than benches.

“I don’t think anyone has this answer: How do you get away from tracking, open it up to all students, but also ensure student success?” Campbell said. “If anyone has this unique formula, I’d love to hear it, but we’re trying.”

Attracting students outside of the honors track is key to improving college-going rates in the community.

“They were tired of what high school was giving them,” said Campbell. “Starting in college is the best thing to do, so they don’t tire out and they don’t keep going after high school.”

Courses are designed to avoid excluding students who have prerequisites. The community college aims to admit students who are interested in the programs – be it industrial automation or the liberal arts.

“It’s really about that ambition and their plans for themselves,” said Campbell.

As the school district tries to keep courses as accessible as possible, college advisors are key. They check in to make sure students continue to get good grades in their high school classes, as well as their college courses.

Promotion is an essential part of ensuring dual registration is offered fairly. Arvin High greatly promotes dual enrollment opportunities for parents of new students through its parent university program, said Ed Watts, principal of the school. It works: Irvine’s freshman enrollment students overwhelmingly said their parents pushed them to enroll.

“She’s gaining momentum now, because we’re in year six of her, so the community knows she’s here now,” Watts said.

Keep growing

Since 2015, the Kern Community College District has added more students enrolling dual-lane than any other district in the state, and it plans to continue to grow.

Having enough qualified secondary school teachers to teach dual enrollment courses is crucial. Kern High School District’s Director of Education Services Ryan Coleman said the newly created Kern Regional Cooperative Education Program will be key. The co-op, modeled after a similar program in Fresno County, will provide tutoring and mentoring to two groups of 25 teachers to receive master’s degrees in their content area—principally English, math, and science.

Satellite campuses—like the one Zatarain attended in Delano—have also been a boon to dual-enrollment efforts. The Crosstown Campus in Bakersfield opened in the spring and serves as the main hub for dual enrollment courses. A campus in Irvine is scheduled to open in fall 2024.

Principal Watts said the pandemic has hit Arvin and her students hard, causing a drop in dual enrollment. But he said the future for dual enrollment is bright. Teachers are working towards the master’s degrees required for them to teach college courses. When the satellite campus across the street opens, Arvin High plans to sync up its schedule, so students can take courses there. Watts compares the school’s efforts to the Kern Community College District with a proverbial snowball.

“It’s a big ball to roll,” Watts said.

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