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New Wrenshall college in the schools program could lead to two-year degree

A tiny little school district in the eastern end of Carlton County is about to take on a program of gargantuan significance for its students and families.

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Come next fall, Wrenshall will have an onsite college preparatory program available to juniors and seniors that could put them on track for an associate in arts degree with Lake Superior College by the time they graduate from high school.

The PREP (Preparation, Rigor, Excellence, Perseverance) program, according to Wrenshall Superintendent Kim Belcastro, incorporates the best elements of other college in the school programs and takes them a step further.

“College in the schools instruction isn’t brand new and many other districts in the area have been doing it for years,” said Belcastro. “We’re just adding to it by trying to place a stronger focus on allowing our kids to remain on site and stay in the district.”

She explained that in the past, some students in the District have chosen the post-secondary education option and end up leaving the school district during their junior and senior years.

“In the whole scheme of things, it’s not good for schools when your top kids leave,” Belcastro said. “They’re a great part of our dynamic at school.”

Belcastro said she and the Board worked together with Lake Superior College to figure out a way to get their kids to stay at the school but still get what they’re looking for educationally. The PREP program they came up with is a combination of the on-site college in the schools classes they’ve already had in the District with the option of having honors online classes as well.

“What also makes our program different is that we’re doing a cohort model,” explained Belcastro. “Our new guidance counselor, Erik Holter, and I will be able to work with PREP students on a regular basis so they’re getting more support in order to be successful. In the time I’ve worked at the school, some of the kids (in the college in the schools programs) have been successful and sometimes they’ve failed miserably. They’re used to being in a nurturing school environment, and all of a sudden they’re pretty much on their own. They also have to miss out on their school activities and they’re out of the loop by the time they’re done with their junior or senior year.”

Belcastro said if students so choose, they can come out of the program with an AA degree after earning 60 credits. She qualified that by saying a student would have to be quite rigorous and dedicated in order to do it, but some of them will no doubt accomplish it. Others will at least earn college credits toward a degree and be that much further ahead when they enroll in college.

“We just want them to have that option,” said Belcastro. “In any case, it will help keep them focused and wanting to move forward.”

Students have to apply for the program by May 15, be able to meet the requirements and pass the Acu-Placer test to make sure that they’re ready. Belcastro said she estimates there will probably be 25-30 students interested in pursuing the program.

She said parents and families have been asking for something like this for some time, indicating that they would otherwise likely have to encourage their kids to go off campus to take the college credits because they can’t afford to help them out with their college tuition any other way. That’s an unfortunate reality in the District, she said, where the overall free and reduced lunch numbers range from 45-60 percent.

“That’s huge” said Belcastro. “We feel we have to work with our community and get a feel for what the needs of the community are. So if there’s anything we can do at the school level to help out preparing the kids and getting them set up for college, it’s important to do. It will give some an opportunity that they might not have had.”

In addition, having students leave campus for other post-secondary education options hurts the District.

“When kids leave our school to go to post-secondary education options, their state tuition money that would normally come to our school goes to the college,” she said. “When students stay here [to take their college classes], their money stays here.”

With the PREP program, the District will still have to pay $1,500 a semester to Lake Superior College for each course as well as an additional $400 per student for any online honors classes. But with the going rate for a two-year AA degree from Lake Superior College currently at around $10,000, it’s still pretty much of a bargain for both families and the District.

“It isn’t more expensive than what we’ve already been doing,” said Belcastro, “and if we can get the kids to stay here it will be more beneficial. We’re excited about it, and the kids are excited about it, and Lake Superior College is excited about it.”

Belcastro concurred that the new program will mean more work for participating teachers, so in the last round of teacher negotiations, the Board agreed that teachers who teach the PREP courses can earn an extra $500 a semester.

Students in the program will have a little extra freedom because they’ll take their online classes as part of their regularly scheduled school day. A “zero hour” class session will also be added to the school day two days a week for the cohort support sessions.

The District held an informational meeting about the new PREP program a few weeks ago and Belcastro said 37 people attended. Another session was held on Tuesday.

“We’ve had very good feedback from the students and families,” said Belcastro. “It’s good that we’re moving in this direction and getting our kids refocused.”