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Sheffield’s Mount Everett School says almost all students will graduate with credits a year after early college designation

Josh Landes

Last year, WAMC broke the news that Mount Everett Regional School in Sheffield, Massachusetts had been designated an Early College institution by the Early College Joint Committee. Students at the public institution are now able to earn college credits while still in high school through a grant from the Southern Berkshire Regional School District and a partnership with Simon’s Rock at Bard College in Great Barrington. Almost a year after the announcement, Mount Everett says nearly all of its 360 students will be leaving the school with those valuable credits in hand free of charge. Southern Berkshire Regional School District Early College Internship Coordinator Lindy Marcel says the initiative is bridging equity gaps in public education. She spoke with WAMC.

MARCEL: There's a new initiative from the state level that is about closing the equity gap for students going to college. So, equity gap could be by socio-economic classification, by race, by English language abilities, or for different disability status. And so, the idea is that everyone across the state has equal access to higher education opportunities, and early college was one way to do that. This designation for the district means that we have a robust implementation that's in line with a designation criteria as set by the state. There's a lot to the designation criteria, but that's all available on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website.

WAMC: Let's talk numbers. At this point, about a year into this designation, what exactly are you seeing on the ground? How many kids are taking advantage of the Early College designation?

So, what's really unique about Southern Berkshire's implementation here at Mount Everett is that every single student is participating in college programming. So, we have middle school students taking sample classes, we have field trips scheduled so that there's more exposure to college campus environments, and college modeled in terms of classroom experience as well. And we have juniors and seniors who are enrolled in college credit classes. Those classes take place here on the Mount Everest campus. We had a few different classes last semester, like a language [and] humanities seminar, a graphic novel course, and a film studies course. And this semester, we have a literature seminar and a detective fiction course, I believe.

That seems like a pretty quick turnaround from achieving the Early College capability into this level of implementation. Tell me- How did Mount Everest go about this? And certainly, there's this constellation of higher learning institutions in Berkshire County- how did that play into that ability to turn this around so quickly?

Oh, it's- Yeah, it's huge. It's happened really fast. I'm so proud of the district. So right now, Simon's Rock College – which is Simon's Rock College, which is associated with Bard in Annandale – they're the only college presence in South Berkshire County. The South Campus of Berkshire Community College actually closed. So, we're so lucky that we got to partner with this institution that really pioneered Early College as a model many decades ago. And it's really about opening up exposure to kids in rural districts. They're just not coming in contact with the same things that you might if you're from an urban or suburban area. So, this is a huge investment in our local community on the part of the Southern Berkshire School District and on the part of Simon's Rock.

When it comes to that inclusivity aspect here, how are you going about making sure that this is truly available to a broad spectrum of students in the school?

We are including 100% of everybody. Every student who goes through Mount Everett will experience this early college model. And every student means every single student. Right now, we have- The vast majority of our seniors have earned college credits already. So, we've got over 90% earning college credits this year, and it's only the first year. So, that number is expected to only go up.

Now, what do you see as the future of this program? I mean, with so much underway already, it certainly seems like it's off to a robust start. Where does this go from here?

Great question. We are implementing Early College as just kind of one of these pathway options for students, students getting prepared in ways that I think are more reflective of you know, the near future realities for what students will face after they leave high school. So, connecting to career opportunities, robust internship programs so students can take what they're learning in the classroom and apply it in hands on ways outside of school, immersive on campus experiences at Simon's Rock and or other colleges while they're still in high school, and also connecting to trades and vocation, because a lot of our students here, may be interested in classes or opportunities that are really specific to them. So, getting students out and connected to real world stuff is the next phase.

In America, college is very expensive. That's a big part of the inclusivity question here. High school for many people is often their last opportunity at a free education in America. Do you feel like this model says something about the future of public education, this idea of weaving in so much college prep into the last gasp of free education in the country?

Well, that's a good question. I know that the Early College implementation here at Mount Everett is making college more affordable, because the program is free of cost to students and families. So, in some cases, students might be earning the only college credit they'll ever earn for free. Or in many cases, students can take those college credits that they've earned here for free and transfer them into their continuing programs. So, this definitely improves the affordability aspect of a college experience. And I do think it speaks to what higher level initiatives are going on statewide and nationally, because I think we've all recognized that, yes, student debt is potentially a looming crisis, and there's lots of ways we can address that.

What are you hearing from the students who are actually taking these courses?

So, students have done absolutely amazing. We had a series of setbacks related to the pandemic in terms of school experience not being great. And then we came in with this program and changed up a lot this year. And the students have handled it just incredibly. We've seen them really rise to the challenge of a new classroom model and new lessons. And I think we've got a lot of kids who are proud of themselves and they've proved a lot of people wrong. And in some ways, I think what we're seeing is that kids are really capable and they're learning what they're capable of.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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