The Middle College program turns 15 and experiences a peak in the accelerated path

Despite getting Aces, Taylor Swickard was an at-risk Springfield high schooler who was hiding in plain sight. She showed up every day and played in a band but secretly planned to quit.

“I wasn’t in a very good mental space,” said Swickard, 19. “My sophomore year, we had just started coming back from COVID and everything was weird. It was a really tough time.”

Then she heard Middle College, a program this Ozarks Technical Community College offers in partnership with Springfield Public Schools. It offers local juniors and seniors a different and more individualized path to graduation.

“I applied right away,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘This is exactly what I want, what I need.’

Middle College, now in its 15th year, was originally created to reduce the dropout rate in Springfield.

“When I came here, we had a very singular focus in terms of the student population we served,” said Tiffany Brunner, the principal for nine years. “At that time, Middle College was definitely an at-risk program for at-risk students who weren’t on the right track.”

Brunner said the reasons students seek out the program have expanded, but Middle College has remained true to its original mission. It continues to help students who struggle in traditional high school get back on track with flexible schedules, small class sizes, staff that go above and beyond, and additional resources.

These extras include learning labs, intersessional classes, transportation to and from campus, and, if needed, free food and clothing.

Tiffany Brunner

Over time, the program opened its doors to students from outside Springfield. It also quickly expanded its initial list of career and technical program options, which now range from auto repair and welding to medical services and culinary arts.

“It’s the largest population,” Brunner said of students seeking vocational and technical training. “And they come for various reasons, but a lot of them want to do something more practical.”

The program allows students to start college credit early

In recent years, the program has seen a surge of applicants who also want to get a head start on the university.

A growing number — including 20 seniors this year, a record high — are on their way to earning their associate degrees by the time they graduate from high school.

“That’s a very difficult achievement to achieve as a high school student,” Brunner said, noting that many enroll in 15 or more college credits per semester. “These kids really sacrifice. They give up a lot.”

Bryan Schmidt, a senior in the OTC Middle College program, takes notes in a chemistry class.  He is on his way to graduating from high school with an associate degree.

Bryan Schmidt, a senior, wanted the fast track. He heard about Middle College from an older brother who had signed up for technical training.

“I remember coming home every day and hearing stories about what he did here and why it was different and more convenient for him at Middle College,” 17-year-old Schmidt recalled. “And that really inspired me to want to come here.”

He was a high achiever at Central High School in all honors and advanced level classes, but he disliked the consecutive class schedule. He wanted to learn in a different format.

“My schedule is not 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sometimes it’s 9:20 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Sometimes it’s 9:20 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.,” he told About Middle College. “I really appreciate its modularity.”

OTC chemistry class senior Bryan Schmidt takes notes in a chemistry class on college campus.

Schmidt studies between classes, hanging out in the Middle College lounge or other parts of campus. In the fall, he will attend Missouri State University as a college junior to pursue a career in physical therapy.

Program applicants are interviewed, along with their parents and guardians, and they have access to counselors and mentors. They can also participate in internships to gain work experience.

Brunner, who has one child enrolled in Middle College and another who graduated, said the program accepts most of its applicants.

She said the merit of the program’s success is the quality of teachers it has been able to attract. She said they build relationships with students based on the goals the teens have for their lives.

“I compare what happens here is you go into a cocoon, very sheltered, a little nervous, not sure what’s going on – did I make the right decision – and you leave a butterfly “Brunner said. “You fly away…with all that courage and confidence.”

After:Four Springfield seniors will graduate from high school, OTC in the same month

How Middle College evolved beyond the original plan

In the mid-2000s, former SPS Superintendent Norm Ridder approached OTC Chancellor Hal Higdon to create an alternative curriculum for high school students. They opted for the Middle College approach after visiting programs in other states.

Higdon said the program, made up of OTC and SPS employees, has evolved but continues to pay off for students. The college committed to the program by renovating a new space for students and program staff in 2019.

“It’s become a program of choice,” Higdon said.

Ben Hackenwerth, director of strategy and innovation at SPS, said the changes were organic, driven by student needs and interest. “It’s a great example of how a highly successful program evolves as its success breeds more success.”

Ben Hackenwerth

He added, “This has been a great win for Springfield Public Schools, our students, and a great collaboration with OTC.”

An average of 150 students, mostly juniors and seniors, now attend the program each year. Most are from Springfield, but the program also accepts students from a handful of districts in the area.

Almost all admitted students will complete the program, which has graduated more than 1,000 seniors. Students pay a fixed fee of $60 per year to attend. Tuition for dual credit courses is paid by the students’ home district.

After:Springfield Public Schools spends $2 million to give online launch program a permanent home

“They’ve had about a 100% graduation rate for a number of years and we know that some of those students weren’t necessarily on that path, or were struggling on that path…and any student that hires graduates” , said Hackenwerth. “Their smaller classes, the learning is a little more personalized and that has contributed to the great success of these students.”

Swickard, who has arranged her OTC class schedule so she can still attend a group at Parkview High School, is also on track to earn an associate’s degree by May. She wants to pursue a career as a writer.

OTC Middle College student Taylor Swickard takes notes in a religion class on Tuesday, September 27, 2022.

“It’s been a good fit. I’m being pushed more than I’ve been in a long time and it’s a great feeling,” she said. “…That’s a healthy push.”

Looking back, Swickard said moving to Middle College was the right move.

“I was so stressed that I was really considering giving up and it’s not really something I’m proud of, but it is what it is and it’s important to share it,” he said. she declared. “I feel like a lot of people, when they look at me, just see an average person and they don’t know that I struggled with certain things.”

Swickard said graduation and an associate degree are in sight.

“A lot of teachers literally have a personal connection with their students and they support you 100%,” she said.

Claudette Riley is the News-Leader’s educational reporter. Email news tips to [email protected]

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