Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics & Public Service

Project Prologue

Early College High Schools

Early College High Schools

The early college high school initiative was an integral part of Governor Leavitt’s plan for trying to advance a more technologically based economy. Part of this was improving and increasing the number of engineers in the state; he set some ambitious goals: First he wanted to double the number of engineers graduating from Utah colleges and then to triple it later on. Leavitt wanted to infuse money into colleges of engineering, giving them greater capacity, so they could admit and train more students, and get them out into the Utah economy. As of 2009 there is still a big gap between what the schools are producing and what is needed in the market place, engineering has a very optimistic employment outlook. The original questions were: How do you get something like this started in the high schools and what do you do to prime the pump? One idea was to start some high tech high schools (Headfirst into High Tech http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW20031207.pdf). Utah was to start some high schools that would attract students who were interested in math, science, engineering or technical fields and these schools would become a natural pipeline into the colleges and universities of the state (Leavitt Hints at Big Plan http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW20020116.pdf, Leavitt Forges Fragile Truce With the UEA (UEA Wary About Teachers Being replaced by technology) http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW19930808d.pdf).

The creative part of that idea was the governor’s relationship with Tom Vander Ark,who was the education director for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation http://www.gatesfoundation.org/Pages/home.aspx). Their original relationship was built around the Western Governor’s University (WGU) which was another idea that the governor had; he wanted to get an online university. He wanted the colleges and universities to do this but they were not keen on the idea of a complete online college education (Virtual University Called Virtual Reality http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW19980427.pdf). They thought that it was an interesting idea but were not much interested in fully developing it. Colleges have their own online courses but philosophically did not like the idea of an entire degree being done online. Most presidents think there is real value from being on campus, having some classes on campus, and residential experience on campus; that’s part of the deal. It was a philosophical divide.  The governor started off with the WGU which originally involved approximately 15 governors (Virtual University Lifts Off http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW19980905.pdf, Higher Education Funding May Not Match Growth http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW19980122.pdf). He created a board of directors to get it going and invited Tom Vander Ark to get involved. During the course of these conversations there was a meshing of the governor’s interest in starting some high tech high schools, the Gates foundation plan to launch a small school initiative and early college high schools. The Gates Foundation’s interests in education are really straight forward. They go out to disadvantage populations or minority populations and try to find pathways to get them into college. They made some assumptions at the front end that there were some practices which were very valuable. One of them was to create smaller high schools, large comprehensive high schools were really counterproductive to producing good educational results. As a pathway to college they wanted the students to start the process earlier. They wanted them in their sophomore and junior years to think about college and what kinds of classes they should be taking in high school to get prepared. This idea developed into the idea that if students start earlier in high school to prepare for college one must offer some college level classes in the high schools (2 Initiatives to Aid Would-Be Teachers http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW20010911.pdf).

Scholarships Centennial New Century

Out of a combination of ideas the Leavitt administration was able to create early college high schools with a high tech flavor. The legislature also saw the value of a high tech curriculum. Businesses could rally around the high tech high schools, especially companies that were technically oriented like L3 communications. This plan became a melding of ideas between the Gates Foundation and Governor Leavitt. Tom Vander Ark told the governor they were going to start a number of these early college high schools around the country. They had done some in Ohio and New York as well as in other places. They wanted another initiative. They were going to identify eight intermediaries; they had one with LaRaza in Arizona, Knowledge Works in Ohio, Georgia Tech in the Southeast, LaGuardia Community College in New York and the Native Americans in Washington State. The relationship with the Governor and Mr. Vander Ark was really the spark of it.

Something interesting happened around the time of September 11th 2001. Tom Vander Ark was in Utah for a WGU meeting and he couldn’t fly out due to the air lines temporarily being shut down. In his typical style Governor Leavitt invited Mr. Vander Ark to stay in his mansion; he stayed for about three or four days. Governor Leavitt sent his commissioner over higher education, Rich Kendell, to talk to him. They talked about early college high schools, high tech high schools and the value of small high schools. At the end of the day after brainstorming and everything else, they decided to apply with the Gates Foundation to become an intermediary to start several early college high schools. The Gates Foundation during these early meetings with Mr. Vander Ark sent the information out. Mr. Kendell received the governor’s directive to get started and write a proposal. The Governor was convinced that they would receive funding for it so a plan was forged. Mr. Vander Ark knew that Governor Leavitt understood what they were trying to do. He thought Utah had the potential even though it didn’t demonstrate the demographics of the Gates Foundation at all. The Gates Foundation wanted to be in Cleveland and Los Angeles with large populations of disadvantaged kids but Utah didn’t seem to fit the mold. Leavitt pulled through and convinced them that Utah would be a good place to be. Rich Kendell wrote a proposal and within a month or six weeks they received notice that they had been awarded 3.6 million dollars from the Gates Foundation to start six schools. The program took off from there.

A plan was put together to have six schools. Nobody realized at the time that the Gates Foundation was easily capable of contributing so much funding, the project was too lean. Everything was run out of the governor’s office. All of the proposals, coordination work, all of the travel was taken out of several department’s own budgets. The network of people who had worked with the Gates Foundation had a lot of experience with this. Knowledge Works in Ohio had a long track record with the Gates Foundation and they knew that there would be significant overhead costs to get an initiative started. Utah took almost nothing for overhead but still produced a lot of results. The main philosophy was to take the money and give it out to the six places.

The Leavitt Administration put together a big chart outlining when these schools would get started and the locations; Cedar City was the first city to be chosen. Rich Kendell went down to Cedar City to talk to Steve Bennion about this early college high school. Bennion was informed that they had a grant and it would require the cooperation of the Iron Country School District and the college to make it work. A meeting was held over at the school district offices in Cedar City. Mayor Sherratt, Steve Bennion, the City Council, and the School Board were there. There was a symbolic locking of the doors, meaning they were determined to have it signed and on its way before the meeting was over. Everyone was very supportive.

It was originally thought that one of the schools would be in Price like there was one in Logan, one in Ogden, and one in Salt Lake City. A prominent belief was that it was important to tie the colleges together with the school districts if they were going to have an early college high school. It worked out well, but they couldn’t get a lot of energy behind the proposal in Price. Those in Price were willing but they didn’t have the resources. Those involved proceeded to create AMES which was a partnership with the University of Utah (Academy For Math, Engineering and Science http://ames-slc.org/index_about.html). They created Itineris which was a partnership with the Jordan School District and Salt Lake Community College, so there were two in Salt Lake County (Itineris http://www.iechs.org/). They had to spread it out over two or three years to get it started and they began with the Academy of Math, Engineering and Science. Commissioner Kendell started getting together a small staff to help him. He hired Jack Sunderledge, who was the former HP executive who had all of the HP accounts in Europe. Hewlett Packer got together with Compaq and gave some executives the opportunity to get out so Sunderledge retired and came and raised money for the Academy of Math, Engineering, and Science. Kendell also hired Al Church to be the first principal. Both turned out to be outstanding selections. Jack Sunderledge knew everybody in the high tech community. He went to IBM and said they needed two learning labs at the new high school, which was about 70 computers, processors, file servers; IBM just donated it. That was about $200,000 worth of computers. He also went to L3 Communications, and raised money. He went to several high tech companies and raised several hundred thousand dollars the first year.

Mr. Church got together a small team to work with him on what the high school would look like. It would focus on math, engineering, and science, but would also meet the curriculum requirements of the State Board of Education (UEN http://www.uen.org/core/). They needed a building so they went to Cottonwood High School because it was built for nearly 3,000 students and its current enrollment was 1,500 so they had a lot of space. They partnered up with the Granite School District and their superintendent and associate superintendent, Linda Mariotta. Initially the people of Cottonwood High School thought they had moved into their space, it was not an easy transition. They had a big area for career and technical education. They had equipment that they had been collecting for the vocational program over the previous forty years. They all went in and worked together to clean it out. Governor Leavitt came out and knocked down the first wall.

Governor Leavitt went to the legislature because the Gates money did not have any funding for buildings or school facilities. On one of the last late night sessions he got three million dollars. He found a way to appease everyone. They used it for the first three schools to get the facilities up and running. It was a brick and mortar project. They had to knock down walls and get it ready for the kind of equipment they were going to use. AMES created what they called the “skunk works” so that the students might have an idea they wanted to pursue. There they could work on their project and leave their work product and materials. They had students who would come in around two o’ clock and instead of playing ball they would work on these projects, sometime even late into the evening hours.

There was one hurdle after another. One of them was who could go to the school. One of the first thoughts would be to go out and recruit students who were already taking math and science. It was suggested that students might need a certain ACT score and but this bumped right up against the State Board of Education who disagreed. They said it was a public school and they cannot put those qualifications on it. This argument was countered by saying that other schools use qualifying criteria to get in, no one can just walk into the IB program, or into an AP program; they have to meet certain criteria. The State Board said that it didn’t matter and they couldn’t do it. It was absolute open enrollment. Mr. Church hired Nate Pierce and Katherine Edwards and they went out to dozens of potential constituencies; the Native American walk in center, Hispanic radio and chambers of commerce. Over time a large population of kids became interested. The first enrolling class had 52% women and 38% minorities. For a school that was math, science and engineering based no one would have predicted those numbers. Since then the dropout rate has been improved on. Most of the credit goes to Al Church. He has thrown his whole heart and soul into education and to help young people maximize what they can do in life. The program was quite the experiment. They had adjunct faculty from the University of Utah who came and taught and people from the private sector that lectured and spoke. There were regular teachers who had signed contracts. The board of trustees consisted of very prominent citizens who were picked by the Governor himself. Some people who worked on the project were Jack Sunderledge and Joanne Lighty who was a professor of engineering at the University of Utah. There were enrollment issues, standards issues and several others. They had to find transportation but didn’t have money for it. Al Church was very creative and was a perfect match for these early problems.

Many of these students were first generation students and they would bring their mother, uncle and grandparents. They had hopes that their kids were going to be doctors or engineers and they were just very excited about it. There were some very heartwarming stories in those first years. There was a young woman named Liberty Affiaki, a woman from Samoa. She was at West High School on the Volleyball Team as well as a cheerleader. She said she just realized she wanted to do something more than just have a typical high school experience. She went through AMES and it became a wonderful experience for her.

From that first school the rest gained momentum which created a new AMES which was up in Ogden, then Itineraries, Cedar City with the Success Academy, Provo with Utah Valley University and finally with Utah State. As of 2009 there are six thriving schools. There was a lot of attention from the Gates Foundation and a group out of Brown University called Jobs for the Future. They were a little skeptical of Utah on the front end but Utah now has some of the better models of how an early college high school should look and operate. They were skeptical because when they thought of helping disadvantage kids they didn’t think Utah. Their big initiatives were in large cities with massive disadvantage populations. They wanted to double the numbers of Hispanics going to college which made their focus not on Utah.

The early college experiment was an interesting one. The Leavitt Administration had a wonderful relationship with the Gates Foundation. The governor was able to get the three million dollars from the legislature and it won a lot of legislative support. This made it a real achievement on the part of the Leavitt Administration (1997 Legislative Accomplishments http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/LG/ms122LG19970228.pdf, Higher Education ‘Better Today,’ Leavitt Says http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW20031109.pdf). Governor Leavitt was well connected and he made the relationship with the Gates Foundation work. The early college high schools are currently doing quite well. They are all charter schools which was another challenge that was faced. Public schools didn’t like the idea of charter schools and they didn’t want to see them popping up all over. They thought they would dilute the educational program in their regular districts. The governor recognizing the opposition got a provision in the law for initiating and improving high tech high schools. It said that charter schools could be chartered at the district level but these early college high schools could be chartered at the state level. It allowed the Leavitt Administration to move ahead without having to go district by district. Leavitt had an incredible capacity to work the system with things he felt strongly about. He was very good at trading off things in a political atmosphere for the things that he wanted. Most likely these early college high schools will stay in place. There is a chance that they will expand the number of them but it would require some seed money. The Gates grant gave every school approximately $500,000 to get started. To start some more schools one would need to hire a principal then request that they staff a planning team consisting of two assistant principals, one in curriculum and one in student issues. In theory after giving them money and guidance they should be up and ready to go within a year.

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Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service