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Principal says dual-credit courses benefit community

"I always talk about that we are kind of 'hope dealers' here in secondary schools," says Porter Cutrell, principal of Early College High School and University High School. Dual-credit courses often provide hope to students, according to Cutrell. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Walk with Principal Porter Cutrell through the hallway of his school, which provides high school curricula to both Early College High School and University High School students, and he will show you the posters of students who have won state championships for their skills in professional trades such as auto mechanics, welding and heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

These are current and former students who have taken college-level courses through the state’s dual-credit program, but some of them wouldn’t qualify in the future if suggested reforms to increase required grade point averages were to take effect.

“That is a difficult piece,” said Cutrell about discussions of raising GPAs as a way to reduce costs to the state. “When you look at it, that begins to take some people out of the game in some ways. In education, what we are seeing is that males, boys, 14 to 18 years old, are some of the lowest-performing people. I really think the dual-credit option gives them some pathways to stay engaged in education.”

Cutrell has a unique perspective on dual credit. As principal of the Early College High School, he sees some of the academic hotshots people often think of when talking about dual credit, which enables high school students to take college-level courses and earn credit toward both their high school diplomas and college degrees or certificates. One of his Early College graduates, undoubtedly a student of unusual academic aptitude, earned both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in two years and is now studying engineering at a state university.

But as principal of University High School as well, Cutrell sees the full range of student abilities, including the special education students and the students at risk of dropping out of high school, Some of these students find a reason to stay in school when they learn that they can take courses at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell to earn certificates in auto technology, graphic design, medical assisting, construction technology or other fields. According to Cutrell, the fact that they can earn skills doing what they enjoy and leave high school with enough training — and possibly a college certificate or degree — to earn good pay can keep them progressing in their educations, as well as give them a sense of purpose.

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Dual-credit programs have been put under the microscope by state officials in recent months. The program cost $54.4 million in fiscal year 2016, up $20 million from 2012. In 2016, 20,213 students enrolled in 48,068 dual-credit courses, an increase from 12,263 students who took 27,751 courses in 2011. Courses and materials are paid by both K12 and higher education state funding.

Cutrell recently made a presentation before the Legislative Finance Committee about dual credit. That group, along with the Higher Education Commission, the Public Education Department and the Dual-Credit Commission, is looking at ways to contain costs, ensure good student outcomes and re-examine how funding is allocated among colleges and high schools.

All of Cutrell’s Early College students enroll in dual credit, as do about 90 percent of the 200 University High students. In spring 2017, students took 862 credit hours. Of juniors and seniors, 32 percent made the dean’s list. Overall pass rate was 84 percent, while average GPA was 2.31. In addition, parents and students saved an estimated $101,041 for college tuition and fees and textbooks.

The possible reform of raising required high school GPA to a minimum of 3.0 or 3.5 would reduce costs by decreasing the number of students eligible. But Cutrell says it would also shut the door to those who need to improve their skills and knowledge to be financially independent and employable after high school. He also argues that prohibiting college-level training for so many would hamper a local and state economy that needs skilled workers.

Another point he makes is that exposing students to a college campus and college faculty through dual-credit courses can interest students in pursuing higher education who otherwise might not consider college an option.

“When you start getting some of these students, maybe first-generation kids or maybe no one they really have known has gone to college and you put them over there (ENMU-R) in a class, there’s some failure. There’s no question that there is some failure. But there are also some people who start to do some things and they pass and now they start to look at themselves in a different light, like, ‘Wow, maybe I really can do this,'” he said. “And I think that is really the part I am excited about. I always talk about that we are kind of ‘hope dealers’ here in secondary schools.”

Cutrell said he does agree that some reforms are worth considering. Right now, state law requires students to take either an Advanced Placement, advanced language, honors or dual-credit course to receive their diplomas. As a result, some students who can’t qualify for the other options must choose a dual-credit course, which is one of the reasons why, statewide, an increase in failure rates is seen. He thinks the state might consider other options for such students.

He also thinks that students should take only those dual-credit courses that fit within their identified career or college pathway, which he says does give some leeway for academic exploration. The Legislative Finance Commission report found that a factor in rising cots was that a significant number of courses taken in dual-credit programs were outside the degree or certificate programs students took once in college.

Dr. Ken Maguire, vice president of academic affairs with ENMU-R, agreed with Cutrell that GPAs should not be the criteria for determining whether students participate in dual credit courses. He said determinations about dual-credit opportunities are best made by high school and college academic professionals.

“I don’t want a predetermined barrier of a GPA to hinder the right choice for Johnny,” he said, “because we have made this overall statement that says, the only way you can be successful in a dual-credit class is if you have a certain GPA.”

Maguire, like Cutrell, said personal experience proves that students who might not qualify if based on high GPA have in the past succeeded at college courses, especially when those courses were aligned with their interests.

He also says that reform that would restrict course choice is complicated. The important thing, he said, is to get a student to the right courses for them. and that might mean that a person in auto technology would benefit from a math or accounting course.

“When it comes to that track and that choice, the purpose for the conversation is right,” he said. “The student needs to know where they are headed and why they are headed there. But to make it black and white … to me that is a bad model to set up. … What we need to do is not constrain the situation so tightly in state rule that we can’t get the student to the right outcome.”

Both Cutrell and Maguire said that the conversations concerning dual-credit programs will continue among local and state educators for some time. They have no doubt some changes will occur, but they both said they want the educational opportunity to remain available for the students who can benefit from them, which can’t be measured by GPAs alone.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.