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Pinellas school district on a mission to make college education affordable

The cost of college is climbing, and financial aid programs are running dry. But if the Pinellas County school district succeeds in its mission to expand its partnership with St. Petersburg College, more students may be able to earn free college credits.

The school board and the college’s board of trustees are looking at the future of dual-enrollment courses, internship opportunities and career programs as ways to lessen the financial burden for Pinellas students.

Noting that both are “in the same business of helping students succeed,” Superintendent of Schools Michael Grego said at a joint meeting this past week that the need for dual-enrollment courses may be greater than ever.

Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship program, which pays a percentage of tuition based on students’ standardized test scores and high school grades, is cutting more than $250 million a year in aid by 2018. About 1 in 3 students earned Bright Futures scholarships in 2008, but higher qualifications will allow only 1 in 8 students to receive a scholarship this year, according to the Florida College Access Network.

Pinellas has 2,439 students in SPC’s dual-enrollment courses who are earning college credits before they graduate from high school. About 123 seniors are enrolled full time at an SPC campus, and an additional 375 students are in the two-year full-time Early College program. The Early College students begin taking classes at SPC’s Clearwater, Seminole or Tarpon Springs campuses as juniors and can earn an associate degree with their high school diploma — potentially saving two years of college expenses.

“In the Early College program, students are still connected to their high school, and there always seems to be a wait list,” school board member Terry Krassner said.

SPC counselors meet with each dual-enrollment student weekly to discuss challenges and goals, said Jeff Cesta, director of SPC’s Early College program. Students with at least a 3.0 grade point average may apply to the program, and students are selected through a lottery system.

They take courses such Western humanities, college algebra and studies in applied ethics. School districts are required to pay tuition costs for the dual-enrollment students, but SPC has lowered the rates to help.

“The Early College program has economic impact on us; that’s why we cap the program,” SPC President Bill Law said. “We used to waive off 25 percent of those students’ tuition costs, and now we waive off 50 percent of costs. And it starts getting snug at that point.”

SPC also has operated an A-rated charter high school for 10 years, giving 241 10th- through 12th-grade public school students an opportunity to earn a high school diploma, an industry certification and an associate degree at the same time at SPC’s Gibbs campus in St. Petersburg.

SPC board member Lauralee Westine said she would like to expand the program to midcounty.

“It’s a different experience at the school, with community service opportunities and a leadership program, and the goal isn’t simply to graduate with two degrees,” Westine said.

Charter schools are publicly funded, which means money that normally would go to the school district follows each student to the charter school. Even so, exploring whether families would be interested in another collegiate high school option is “worth finding out,” school board Chairwoman Carol Cook said.

Apart from earning more free credits, students could save on tuition if they spent less time in remedial courses, SPC board member Deveron Gibbons said.

Though more than 80 percent of Pinellas’ graduating seniors were deemed “college ready” according to their standardized test scores, about 53 percent of the 1,800 students who enrolled in SPC are in a remedial course. Those programs aren’t cheap, Gibbons said.

“There may soon come a time where we don’t have these remedial opportunities, so when students go in there and fail, that’s it — they have to pay out of pocket next time around,” Gibbons said.

“Most students can’t afford to pay out of pocket, so we need to have a strong discussion (by middle school) on how to prepare students for college ... so we’re not too late,” he said.

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