he students giggle, squirm and whisper to each other as their instructor gets ready to begin. It’s the start of a typical middle school class except for one thing: These 12-year-olds are taking a college course.
Being college-ready has a new meaning at middle schools in the Hayward Unified School District, where some seventh- and eighth-graders stay after school to take introductory college courses from local community college instructors.
While many districts in California give high school students the opportunity to earn college credit, Hayward may be the only district in California — and possibly in the nation — to offer college courses to middle school students after school.
Instructors from Chabot College in Hayward teach classes at the middle schools ranging from early childhood development to engineering to music. Each of the five middle schools in the district offers one class per semester. Instructors adjust their teaching to be appropriate for middle school students, but the content is the same as courses offered at Chabot. Credits earned are transferable to community colleges and four-year universities.
Offering college classes for 12-year-old children might seem like another example of putting pressure on students at ever-younger ages, but the impetus for the program is quite different, Hayward administrators say.
Middle school occurs at a critical juncture for students, who face peer pressure as they try to form their own identity and envision their future. Hayward educates about 22,500 students, three-fourths of whom come from low-income families. Administrators in the district say many of their students have no relatives or friends who have gone to college, and are in danger of thinking or being told that college is not for them.
If they pass a college class and get credit, then “no one can tell them they’re not college material,” said Chien Wu-Fernandez, assistant superintendent of student and family services for Hayward Unified School District. “They have just proved that they are.”
The district wanted to use after-school time to propel students ahead, rather than to focus only on remediation or support for classroom work, Wu-Fernandez said. “We thought, ‘What better way to promote college and career readiness?’”
David Farbman, senior researcher for the National Center on Time & Learning, an advocacy group for expanded learning programs, was surprised that middle school students were tackling college courses in their after-school program.
“As long as they can handle it, it’s good to challenge them,” he said. “You don’t want to push kids too hard, but given the right support, they can achieve at high levels.”
Classes average 20 students, but music and theater classes can be as large as 35 students. Students must spend 18 hours in class per unit, and most classes are for three units. “It’s college with support,” Wu-Fernandez said. “They’re not doing it on their own.”
Roberto Mendez, who coordinates the program for Chabot, said the college chooses courses that middle school students can handle. “They’re not taking calculus or chemistry,” he said.
Vanessa Cormier, manager of the Chabot program that offers college classes to students in high school, said the Hayward middle school students are not only learning the course content, but also soft skills such as persistence and self-regulation.
The classes, which include sociology, early childhood development, introduction to engineering, and introduction to acting, are funded by state and federal after-school program grants. The district pays Chabot $300 to $500 per student, depending on the course and cost of textbooks.
In the first three semesters of the Hayward program, which began in summer 2014, enrollment was 175.
Wu-Fernandez said students who don’t pass a class are encouraged to try again the following year. Just taking the course helps them realize that college work is “much easier than they thought,” she said.
Students who took the childhood development class last fall said they signed up for the course to find out what college was like.
“You have to read the book if you want a good grade,” said Edith Perez, one of the students.
Her father, Jaime Perez-Gonzalez, who owns a window washing company, told his daughter he was proud of her for doing well in a college class. Edith earned a B.
Perez said he and his wife are “100 percent behind” their daughter. “She is so focused.”
EdSource is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1977 to highlight strategies for student success.