By Kelsie McCrae
The College Now program will give Loudoun performing arts and science students the chance to experience a week away at college—and will reward them with free college credits.
The program was inspired by the idea that if students who are on the fence about attending college were given the chance to try it out for free, they would be more likely to choose that path.
Thanks to a $29,000 grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, 30 Loudoun high schoolers will attend a weeklong course at Richard Bland College, and earn as many as four college credits while they’re at it.
Fifteen students spent last week at the college in Petersburg studying performing arts and a second group of 15 students will leave July 31 to spend a week there studying chemistry, physics, biology, and astronomy.
The first set of students, under the tutelage of Rock Ridge High School theater teacher Anthony Cimino-Johnson, studied theater history, listened to lectures, and took time to reflect on their lessons through journaling and video diaries. They also practiced dramatic improv. Although typically thought of as a comedic tool, students learned how to use improv in a serious way.
Students used the skills they learned during week to develop a one-act play─titled “Why Am I Here?”─ which they performed for friends and family in Rock Ridge’s black box theater on Friday. The play explored the anger and confusion that follow the loss of a loved one, from the death of a dog to a child, and how redemption can follow.
Rock Ridge’s own Andrew Otchere said that much of the production was improv. “We have a few planned lines to trigger the next scene, but a lot of it is made up as we go. We’ve seen that it brings out true, real emotions,” he said.
Otchere, a rising junior, had taken a few high school theater classes before the program, but said he had never experienced anything like it. “I went into the week not knowing what to expect, but I came out having learned so much,” he said. “I loved it. Not many people get an opportunity like this.”
The second group leaves later this month and will cram a semester’s worth of science course work into a week. Rock Ridge physics teacher Myron Hanke is eager to have the flexibility to take his students outdoors to identify constellations at night, something he wouldn’t have the opportunity to do in a typical high school course.
Kevin Terry, director of school counseling at Rock Ridge High School, said Hanke and Cimino-Johnson worked with Richard Bland College to basically create their own governor’s school. They developed curriculum that will both challenges and interests high school students who are particularly talented in science and/or performing arts. As a result, the theater students will walk away with three college credits, and science students with four. The credits are accepted at most Virginia colleges and universities, including Richard Bland College’s sister school, the College of William and Mary.
“When you look at the amount of time they spend working, it adds up to as many hours as a college course,” Terry said. “The program is designed to give high-achieving and passionate students the chance to experience college.”
The College Now students attend Rock Ridge, Freedom, Broad Run, Loudoun County and Park View high schools and were selected from a pool of candidates that were recommended by their teachers. There were two spots reserved for each the county’s high schools, but not every one chose to send students.
Most of the students came from Rock Ridge, which places an emphasis on dual enrollment, courses that its students are offered on the school campus but can also earn them college credit. This year’s graduating class earned 3,360 college credits through the program—an average of 11 credits per graduate.
The school’s partnership with Richard Bland College allows it to offer dual enrollment courses for free, a model that has earned recognition from state and even federal leaders, including U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA).
Terry met with Warner’s education liaison last week to discuss the success of both the dual-enrollment and College Now programs. The College Now class joined in on the discussion via Skype to share their thoughts and experiences from the first half of their week at Richard Bland College.
The reaction from Warner’s office was “very complementary,” Terry said. “They’ve been following along because of the success of the dual enrollment program.”
Both the dual enrollment and College Now programs are introducing more options for students who might decide to pursue higher education. Not only will they better prepared to attend a college or university, but they will also be further along the path to the diploma of their choice by earning college credits before they’ve graduated high school.
Kelsie McCrae is a summer intern with Loudoun Now. She’s studying English literature, leadership studies and business administration at Christopher Newport University. She is an alumna of Loudoun School for the Gifted in Ashburn.