At the Billings Public Schools Career Center, high school students can help build a house, teach pre-kindergarten students, repair automobiles, or monitor the heartbeat of a lifelike mannequin in an operating room — all while earning college credit.
An hour east of Billings at Hardin High School near the Crow Reservation, students can learn the basics of first response medical care in an Emergency Medical Technician class. But unlike students at the Billings Career Center, Hardin students can’t earn college credit for the same course. The school lacks a teacher with the credentials to teach that course at a college level, and a Hardin student’s ability to earn college credit is limited to a few fundamental courses, such as Writing 101.
“The biggest hurdle we have is finding qualified teachers that can teach those classes because they have to have a master's degree and for a certain specific area, they have to have at least nine graduate level credits in order to teach those classes,” said Lance Olson, a guidance counselor and Gear Up liaison at Hardin High School.
Even farther away, some 55 miles from Billings, is Lame Deer High School on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Here, students in a welding class can learn to change tires and repair automobiles, but they are earning only high school credit, not college credit. Dual enrollment, a bridge to college, isn't yet built into the program.
Dual enrollment courses allow students to work toward their high school diploma while also earning college credit at low or no cost. A state pilot program called “One-Two-Free” allows all eligible high school students the chance to take their first two dual enrollment courses through the Montana University System at no charge, and many other private and tribal colleges offer free or reduced tuition.
Educators across Montana point to dual enrollment as an important way to help more students make the leap to college.
"Students who have access to college credit courses while they're still in high school, across the board, succeed at higher rates," said Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of academic, research and student affairs in the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. "They're more likely to go on to college, they're more likely to have a higher GPA when they get there, (and) they're more likely to finish on time, even when you account for all sorts of other variables.
"It's a really an important part of our of our access story," Tessman said.
The number of students taking dual enrollment courses in Montana is on the rise, increasing by about 1,000 students each year since the 2014-2015 school year and reaching 8,000 students earning credit in at least one college class in the 2018-2019 school year — an all-time high for the state, according to data from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.
But the “One-Two-Free” program is set to sunset after this school year, and the question of how to continue to fund dual enrollment looms in educators’ minds. At the same time, courses are often out of reach, literally, for Montana's students most in need — those living in rural areas and on reservations. And as dual enrollment continues to gain traction, time spent in college can be shorter and thousands of dollars cheaper for urban students than it is for the state’s more rural and Native American students of lesser means.
"It's just been such a meteoric rise that we know our next stage of growth is really about quality, and it's about filling in those gaps and access on the reservations and in some of our most remote areas," Tessman said.
High schools can offer dual enrollment in a variety of ways, but they have to partner, and each school is generally designated a regional two-year partner college.
Arlee High School offers Writing 101 and college composition for dual enrollment through Flathead Valley Community College, but it does not offer courses through the University of Montana or Salish Kootenai College. At the latter campuses, however, students can take courses online or on campus.
At St. Labre High School in Lame Deer, Elysia Bain, a high school teacher, is working with Chief Dull Knife College to find a way to offer a tribal government course for dual credit. The program is in its nascent stages there.
"I started talking about doing the dual enrollment with the tribal government after doing AP with U.S. history," Bain said. "It does give the kids confidence in their own abilities, and it also gives them the idea that college is accessible."
Although the number of the state's smaller Class B and C schools that offer dual enrollment has increased from 69 to 93 from the 2014-2015 school year to 2018-2019 — a 35% increase — the course offerings at Class B and C schools often pale in comparison to schools in more urban areas. The barrier is the lack of high school educators at the state’s smaller schools who have the credentials required to teach college-level classes.
Missoula County Public Schools, a AA district with three urban high schools, has several offerings at each school, in addition to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes that can help students earn college credit. This year, Hellgate High School offers seven options for dual enrollment, Sentinel offers 18 and Big Sky offers five. Students can also dually enroll in classes at the nearby University of Montana or Missoula College.
In contrast, Seeley Swan High School, the district's satellite high school located in Seeley Lake, offers four dual enrollment courses.
Kellen Palmer, principal of Seeley Swan, said he foresees potential issues with offering the same courses in the future as some of his more veteran staff start to retire, especially because teachers may be stretched over more than one subject.
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"It would be very difficult to hire for something where we need people with certifications and multiple disciplines just because we need someone that can do math and science, or English and social studies just because of our limited number of staffing options," Palmer said.
Just 30 minutes outside of Missoula at Arlee High School on the Flathead Reservation, students can take Writing 101 and College Composition with Ryan Landolfi, who has his master’s in creative writing.
Dual enrollment courses can help students enter college having already completed their required general education classes, which can sometimes deter students from pursuing their major. In particular, Montana educators point to required math courses as a stumbling block for some students when they enter college.
"There's a correlation between remedial math and retention rates for those students, and if students can get that out of the way, they're going to be more likely to succeed," said Nicole Lindgren, a math teacher at Helena High School who teaches several dual enrollment classes.
Arlee High School principal Jim Taylor said his school has tried to offer a math dual enrollment course as a way for students to remove that obstacle when they get to college, but the school lacks a teacher who meets the qualifications.
Montana requires high school teachers to have a master's degree in the subject area of the course in order to offer it for dual enrollment. Career and technical faculty are required to have a number of years of professional experience in their occupation, which may be combined with related post-secondary education. But as both urban and rural schools across the state grapple with teacher recruitment and retention, schools are struggling just to fill positions to pass state accreditation standards.
This year, Olson said Hardin High School approved four emergency teaching licenses to fill positions, including a math teacher.
“It has been extremely difficult,” Olson said. “There are a lot of out-of-state schools that are hiring right on the spot. They pay more money. They have sign-on bonuses. I think the state of Montana needs to try to do something for teacher recruitment.”
In 2016, in response to the teacher shortage, OCHE created the Rural Recruitment and Retention Task Force to increase the number of available educators interested in working in Montana's public schools. A resulting report this month produced in partnership with the federally funded Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest found that in the 2017-2018 school year, districts in Montana were challenged or unable to fill 62% of positions in shortage subject areas, such as math and science, and rural administrators reported greater difficulties.
To make headway, the Montana Legislature passed bills in the 2017 legislative session that provide loan repayment and stipends for educators working in targeted rural and/or impoverished schools.
Angela McLean, OCHE’s director of American Indian/Minority Achievement and K-12 Partnerships, said the office is working with campuses to support more schools and “make sure that every student has an opportunity for face-to-face classroom instruction.”
“I think it’s very important that by creating opportunities, that we don't unintentionally widen the opportunity gap,” McLean previously told the Missoulian.
Apart from finding educators who are qualified to teach dual enrollment, smaller schools may also lack the resources needed for certain classes.
“We try to utilize what we have here to teach those, but we can’t offer, say, a biology or a science class because we don’t have all the labs," said Taylor, of Arlee High School.
Meanwhile, high school students in the state's largest district, Billings Public Schools, can dissect organs and body parts in a Human Body Systems class at Billings Career Center.
Students at schools like Arlee that lack the infrastructure for certain classes can still earn credits in other ways, such as online, although not all students are aware of those options. (See Monday's Missoulian for a closer look at the online option.)
Peyton Lammerding, a senior at Arlee, is currently taking Writing 101 at Arlee, and recently completed a one-semester class called Wild 101, or Careers in Wildlife Biology through the UM.
Lammerding didn't have to go to campus for the course, but she still got to interact with her classmates through twice-weekly live streams for lectures. Lammerding heard about the course "by chance" from her godmother who works at UM.
"It was such a good opportunity, and I wish I would’ve known about those types of classes sooner just because I would have taken more of them," she said.
In Arlee, Taylor said that looking at ways to offer more dual enrollment courses can feel like "a lot of jumping through hoops." Despite that, educators often take it upon themselves to find ways to offer the classes and obtain master's degrees or necessary credits even if it means more schooling. Some districts, such as Missoula County Public Schools, offer a significant increase in pay for teachers based on the number of master's level credits they obtain, but some districts offer little financial incentive.
"Most teachers do it because they want to provide those opportunities to students," Olson said. "That's, I would say, nearly 100% of it."