Harpswell Coastal Academy (HCA) graduate Ian Poeraatmadja ’17 wasn’t planning on college — until he sampled it as a high school student. Through HCA’s early college program, ninth through twelfth graders can enroll in courses offered by the U-Maine system while juniors and seniors can enroll at Southern Maine Community College’s (SMCC) Brunswick campus, next door to HCA. Both systems offer online or virtual course options, and HCA is one of the few high schools in Maine that facilitates this type of dual enrollment.
As an intellectually curious junior, Poeraatmadja began enrolling in SMCC courses. “After taking those classes I thought, ‘If this is what college is like, this is pretty great!’” says Poeraatmadja. The courses helped him meet academic standards for HCA graduation while earning tuition-free college credits, which ended up serving him well: Poeraatmadja graduated from the University of Maine with an English degree last spring.
“It’s a good way for students to find out ‘Is college for me?’ in an environment that’s safe financially and emotionally,” says HCA Division II &III Counselor Kaitlyn Pulju. “Some students realize they need to up their game and others who feared it would be intimidating discover that college is accessible.” Like Poeraatmadja, many decide to chase a college degree after all. “Students can understand the rigor of a college class while having the assistance of HCA staff,” says Pulju. “Courses are woven into their regular schedules and we support them in a multitude of ways — at some other schools it might be up to the students to make it happen.”
From courses such as Peace Studies, Engineering, and Introduction to Criminal Justice, participants can deep-dive into subjects that are unavailable at a small high school. The exposure can help students determine if they want to major in a particular field, while those who hope to graduate college early can begin earning credits tuition-free during high school.
Being nudged outside your comfort zone can strengthen self-esteem and ease the transition to college, adds Pulju. “It also distinguishes a college application because it shows the candidate will be a valuable part of the community,” she adds. “For students considering a trade, an advanced course or certification is also valuable. Employers want to know their hires will be capable of earning certain qualifications.”
HCA senior Thomas has taken asynchronous (virtual) college courses since sophomore year. “At first the assignments seemed daunting,” he recalls. “But for the most part they are like any other course, with more advanced material.” Thomas received A’s in all three courses (including American history and writing), which boosted his confidence. “My reading and writing skills improved and the workload wasn’t as hectic as I thought it would be.
“Students who are thinking of going into the trades can take a business course or something else that interests them and would be a practical help,” Thomas adds. “The experience opens up a lot of opportunities. The course can look good on a resume — not just a college application.”
The early college program sharpens executive functioning skills because students must advocate and be accountable for themselves, says Pulju. “The learning is about how many ways those skills will apply to life after graduation,” she explains. “HCA wants to prepare students for life after high school — we want to set them up for success.”