AMCS helps high school students accelerate into college

Nine students sat at their tables, each bent over a laptop and eyes intent as they focused on their tasks. The rapid clicking of fingers tapping keyboards made the only noise in the room.

Alaska Middle College School instructor John Robertson, left, helps Greyson Holohan with classwork. Robertson teaches high school classes and a support seminar for high school students taking college-level courses at UAA’s Chugiak-Eagle River Campus. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
Alaska Middle College School instructor John Robertson, left,
helps Greyson Holohan with classwork. Robertson teaches
high school classes and a support seminar for high school
students taking college-level courses at UAA’s
Chugiak-Eagle River Campus.
(Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
“That’s my squirreliest group,” Alaska Middle College School teacher John Robertson said, smiling, watching his studious charges from a hall outside his classroom at UAA’s Chugiak-Eagle River Campus (CERC).

Robertson is one of two high school teachers participating in a collaboration between UAA’s Community & Technical College (CTC) and the Mat-Su Borough School District (MSBSD), which, since 2012, has made it possible for students to satisfy both high school graduation and UAA general education requirements by concurrently enrolling in high school and college courses.

Students may use the opportunity to accumulate credits for a UAA Associate of Arts degree while earning their high school diploma and MSBSD provides the students with free college tuition, free textbooks and free transportation via a Valley Mover bus.

AMCS offers a way for CTC to advance UAA’s strategic priorities of promoting student success and, through the school district partnership, strengthen ties between the university and Alaska communities. It’s also part of a broader college and career pathways strategy to help high school students seamlessly transition to college and retain Alaska’s qualified high school graduates, since many AMCS students will continue to study at UAA. Even students who enroll in college out of state can transfer credits, depending on which institution they choose to attend.

The University Honors College has also partnered with CERC to offer courses, in which AMCS students may participate—AMCS students filled an entire honors class novelist Don Rearden taught in 2013 and they had an opportunity to hear Nobel laureate and astrophysicist Brian P. Schmidt lecture later that year.

Looking toward the future


Yelena Sinyawski, 17, a high school junior, is taking her first semester of classes at AMCS. Every school day, she boards the Valley Mover at 6:45 a.m. outside the Wasilla Fred Meyer store and arrives at CERC 45 minutes later. She is currently taking four college classes—12 credits—and a high school algebra class she hopes to test out of by the end of the semester so she can enroll in a higher-level UAA algebra class.

Alaska Middle College School program coordinator Whitney Tisdale and students Shana Beattie, Alex Grey, Isabel Carpenter and Yelena Sinyawski stand outside UAA’s Chugiak-Eagle River Campus building, where AMCS high school classes and UAA classes take place. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
Alaska Middle College School program coordinator
Whitney Tisdale and students Shana Beattie, Alex Grey,
Isabel Carpenter and Yelena Sinyawski stand outside
UAA’s Chugiak-Eagle River Campus building, where
AMCS high school classes and UAA classes take place.
(Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
Before, Yelena said she attended school in Wasilla amid about 1,300 other students.

“It’s high school—they don’t treat you like an adult,” she said of her previous high school experience. “It felt like I was wasting time. I was ready for a higher level.”

“The high school requirements and prerequisites required for college, they overlap,” she said. “The first two years when you enter college you’re just taking those prereq[uisite]s where you have to take a quantitative skill, writing skills, things like that. In high school you have to take three years of math, four years of English. Those last two years, they just overlap, so I think that’s why this program is really cool because it just gets both of that. It pretty much puts four years [of college] into two.”

AMCS doesn’t offer a conventional homecoming-and-prom high school experience—though students may participate in those types of events back at their home schools. What it does offer, Yelena said, is a chance for a motivated student to quickly move forward through college toward a career—with less loan debt to repay.

“I think a lot of the thing that’s pulling people back is the whole concept of high school,” she said. “There’s the whole rosy-colored concept of high school portrayed in the media. The people who come here are the ones who are looking into the future and what it’s going to bring. That’s what I’m looking at. I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, my high school has to be the best years of my life.’ No. I’m looking toward the future and those are going to be some good years because I’m going to be done two years earlier than most people my age.”

‘Everybody talks to everybody’


Isabel Carpenter first learned about AMCS after her mother saw information about it on Facebook.

“Originally we had lived in Washington and they had a thing kind of like this called ‘Running Start,’” she said. “I still wanted to do that. When we found they had it up here, we were really excited. So I was still able to get that opportunity of going to college early, get a head start.”

Isabel attended Colony High School prior to enrolling at AMCS.

“It was good, I guess,” she said. “There’s always so much drama, I feel like, and I focus mainly on the schoolwork part of it rather than getting involved. My parents always said I would do better in a college-type situation better than a high school.”

Teens enrolled in Alaska Middle College School are among the students in Solveig Pedersen’s class at UAA’s Chugiak-Eagle River Campus. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
Teens enrolled in Alaska Middle College School are
among the students in Solveig Pedersen’s class at
UAA’s Chugiak-Eagle River Campus.
(Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
Isabel filled out a form explaining why she wanted to join, then took Accuplacer—a placement test that assesses students’ skills in English and math—to see where she would fit in. She received an acceptance notice a few weeks later.

“Right now I’m filling in the high school part of it the best as I can, so I can finish and be done with that part and move on to the regular college stuff,” she said.

Isabel is taking four college classes—biology, psychology, interpersonal communications, English—and a high school algebra class. She was preparing to take another Accuplacer test she hopes will get her into a college math class: “I’m hoping to get into [Math]105 for one semester and 107 the next,” she said.

Her goal is to study computer science.

“I feel more focused,” she said. “I’m getting more help because it’s a smaller group. I think I work better. It’s a lot of work but I like it. I just think I work a lot better in this atmosphere—you still have a lot to do but it’s relaxed. You have to work, but it’s on your own terms and at your own pace. There’s no drama at all here. That’s nice, too. You know, the typical girls drama, fighting about boys, stuff like that. Or there’s like the popular groups and everyone has a little group. Here, everybody talks to everybody. There is no certain group.”

‘I saved so much money’

Andrew Nelson attended Alaska Middle College School, where he amassed 54 credits before graduating. He is now a freshman at UAA who plans to attend nursing school. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
Andrew Nelson attended Alaska Middle College School,
where he amassed 54 credits before graduating. He is
now a freshman at UAA who plans to attend nursing school.
(Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Andrew Nelson, 19, is attending UAA. Thanks to AMCS, he is six credits shy of an associate degree, has finished two years of prerequisite and general education classes and is ready to delve into nursing studies.

He became interested in nursing and anesthesiology after injuring his spleen in a snowboarding mishap and spending time in a hospital.

“I’ve always known what I wanted to do for college and I knew it would be expensive,” he said.

He and his sister, Faith, both attended AMCS after switching over from Colony High School in their junior year. They would drive there so they could return to Colony in the early afternoons and continue participating in sports while attending AMCS.

“I saved so much money—two years of tuition at UAA, all my classes and books minus dorm and food,” he said.

Getting support


AMCS offers a way for high school students to start amassing college credit before they graduate. It also provides guidance to students taking those college courses.

Robertson teaches high school social studies and English, in addition to offering a support seminar that helps high school students enrolled in college English, social science or humanities courses.

“We have students who come in who can do well on Accuplacer and have the cognitive skills to do fairly well in introductory college courses, but lack time-management skills and those sorts of nonacademic skills required to do well in college,” he said. “The seminar is there to give these students some support so they can get their work done on time. College freshmen really suffer from time-management problems and it’s a big reason for them to fail courses their freshman year and ultimately drop out.”

AMCS instituted the seminar class last semester, said Kim Griffis, CERC director, to help students better transition between high school and college.

AMCS students are among those who learn philosophy in William Jamison’s class at UAA’s Chugiak-Eagle River Campus. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
AMCS students are among those who learn philosophy in
William Jamison’s class at UAA’s Chugiak-Eagle River Campus.
(Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
“The responsibility of being a college student is much different than the responsibility of being a high school student,” Griffis said. “In the seminar, they can get help interpreting a syllabus or assignment, have someone they can bounce questions off that they might not be comfortable asking in class. It’s a form of study hall. We see them starting to form study groups, starting to see collaboration. It shows them how to set goals and meet expectations. We’re hoping to see a difference, in higher grades.”

Griffis said 34 students graduated from AMCS’s first class.

• Nineteen of those 34 received 30 or more college credits.

• Nineteen of those students stayed in Alaska and continued taking courses within the UA system—18 with UAA, one with UA Southeast. “We’re hoping to keep that up,” Griffis said.

• Four students qualified for Associate of Arts degrees.

More than 100 students enrolled at AMCS this fall; 92 are taking one or more college courses.

AMCS offers an innovative way to offer education, she said.

“It allows students ready for college to expedite their studies,” Griffis said. “There’s a select group of students ready for this kind of opportunity, who can do the collegiate work and be successful. In an era when education is costly to parents, I think this is a wonderful option for students who may not have had that opportunity any other way.”

Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement. This article originally appeared in Green & Gold News on Dec. 3, 2014.

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AMCS helps high school students accelerate into college
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