Cloquet High School students who are hungry for the academic rigor expected of college students can choose from more than 70 credits worth of college classes to take alongside their peers.
Cloquet, along with most high schools in Carlton County, participates in a program called College in the Schools, known as CIS, which gives students the opportunity to enroll in college-level classes taught by their high school teachers.
The courses also allow students to earn transferable college credits at no cost to them, though that financial benefit is more of an afterthought to the four seniors the Pine Journal interviewed who have each taken about 45 credits worth of CIS courses.
"It's more about preparing us for college than actually getting that college credit," Riley Leslie said of his motivation to fill his schedule with CIS classes the past two years. "It helps you prepare so you don't just get slapped in the face."
Cloquet offers 21 courses through Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and the University of Minnesota Duluth. The course list includes a wide range of subjects from FDLTCC, such as American government, music theory, personal finance, physics, digital photography and chemistry.
Cloquet partners with UMD to offer three classes: Economics and Society, College Writing and Introduction to Literature. Next school year, Cloquet will offer its two CIS Spanish courses through UMD as well.
When students go to counselor Shannon Sams with questions about which CIS courses to take and how many, she encourages them to think about what college they might want to attend and what major they might want to study so they can get an idea for what courses will transfer over well.
Not all colleges accept every CIS credit and many private schools have caps to the number of credits they will accept.
For college-bound students who aren't sure what they want to study, having a load of CIS credits on their transcripts when they start college isn't always good approach.
"All of a sudden you get to college and you're already a sophomore and you have to declare your major," Sams said. "I have seen that kind of bite kids."
For the most part, both Sams and her colleague, Dave Bergan, hear back from Cloquet graduates saying they're grateful for the extra effort they put in during high school.
"I get a lot of kids that come back and say, 'I'm so glad I challenged myself. It made these classes so much easier and it helped me prepare for time management and everything else,'" Bergan said.
Some students take as many CIS courses as they can while other simply pick those that play to their strengths, Kaitlyn Simmonds said. She belongs to the former group - her schedule's filled with CIS courses. Still, she can relate to the others.
"I get overwhelmed with (CIS) physics and calculus because I'm not super strong in math, but (CIS) English never bothers me," Simmonds said. "I know a lot of people who are just in advanced English classes or just in advanced math classes because they're better at those subjects."
To qualify for CIS courses, juniors must have a 3.0 grade-point average or higher and seniors must have a 2.5 GPA or higher. Students must also take a placement test before taking a CIS course offerred through FDLTCC.
If students don't get the score they need on the placement test or they don't have the grades, they can go through a waiver system to prove they're ready for college-level courses, Bergan said. Leslie and Johnathan Muhvich had to go through this process in order to take a math class.
For Muhvich, balancing a full schedule of advanced courses and extracurriculars is never something he regrets. He chases the thrill of a busy day.
"I definitely like the days a lot more when I come to school and it's chaos and then I leave school and it's like, 'Whoa,'" Muhvich said.
He and the other students who take CIS courses all day have formed what Bergan calls a "cohort" - students who have taken most of the same advanced classes for the past two years. A benefit of this, Muhvich said, is having two or three different group chats to message with questions about homework assignments.
On the flip side, taking the classes with the same core group can mean students aren't hearing new perspectives, Claire Taubman said. She's a senior currently taking a class with students she's not familiar with.
"It's so different hearing all their different perspectives," Taubman said. "There are so many different types of people in that class."
Cloquet offers the CIS program in place of Advanced Placement classes. The key distinction between the two programs is that students have to achieve a high score on a final, comprehensive test if they want to receive college credit for the AP class.
"Some kids are not good test takers," Sams said. "So there's a disadvantage. You might be a really hardworking student, but if you're not a good test taker, then you're just kind of out of luck. I don't like that idea."
Post Secondary Enrollment Options, or PSEO, is another option Cloquet offers students. Fewer than a dozen students currently do this, Sams said, in part because the CIS program is strong enough that it keeps students in the school. Still, PSEO, where students take on-campus college courses, is a great fit for some kids.
"High school is tough," Sams said. "Some kids just don't feel comfortable here."
Simmonds wants younger students, like her siblings, to know that if they're worried about going into an advanced class from behind, they should take the class anyway. Teachers are always there to help.
Teacher requirements changing
For high school teachers to qualify for teaching CIS courses, the Higher Learning Commission, an organization responsible for accreditating colleges, requires teachers to have a master's degree in the content area they're teaching or a master's degree with 18 graduate credits in that content area.
In the past, partnering colleges and universities would qualify high school teachers to teach the courses based on other factors as well, Superintendent Michael Cary said.
As of 2023, however, the HLC will no longer allow that. This means teachers all across Minnesota would no longer be qualifed to teach their CIS courses. Cary suspects about half of the high school's CIS teachers would be affected by the tightened rules.
The burden of paying for the additional schooling will fall on the individual teachers themselves, rather than the colleges, said Cloquet School Board Chair Ted Lammi.
"That will be very difficult," Lammi said. "We as a school will try and help him, but that money has to come from somewhere. That somewhere is that general fund - the fund we use to pay the teachers out of."
If teachers aren't eligible to teach CIS courses, students might opt for PSEO instead, taking state aid with them, Lammi said.
Cary, who's been talking with teachers about this issue, pointed out that teachers further along in their careers might decide not to invest in the extra schooling if they know they're not going to recover the cost before they retire.
"I think they want to do the right thing and get credentialed," Cary said, "But they're also being pragmatic."