When 20 Flathead High School students enrolled in a pilot program called Running Start at Flathead Valley Community College in 1996, the concept of high schoolers earning college credit was already well developed in states like Washington, Utah and Minnesota. In Montana, though, the idea of expediting higher education had yet to take hold.
Now, more than a decade later, FVCC has set the educational standard for Running Start in Montana, offering traditional and technical college credit courses to 300 students annually – for half the cost.
In 2000, acting upon a proposal from FVCC counselor George Shryock, school officials cut tuition in half for Running Start students and expanded the program to include all eligible Flathead and Lincoln County high schoolers. Ten high schools in all participate today. This year teachers at Flathead and Glacier high schools will instruct two college-level pilot courses for pre-selected students in math and business.
Julia Tikka decided as a junior at Flathead High School that she needed a different learning environment. A volunteer at Kalispell Regional Medical Center, she already knew a profession in healthcare was in her future. Tikka enrolled in Running Start and earned 41 college credits her junior and senior years of high school. And this summer Tikka received an acceptance letter from Montana State University, where in the fall of 2009 she will enroll in the nursing program – a year ahead of schedule.
“It was a wonderful experience for me,” the 2008 FHS grad Tikka said. “Anyone could and should take advantage of it.”
Students must meet minimum requirements to enroll in Running Start but the criteria doesn’t make the program exclusive to students in the top of their class. Compared to a four-year university, classes at FVCC are smaller, more accessible and taught by teachers who are able to dedicate all of their time to instructing instead of researching, FVCC Director of Institutional Advancement Colleen Unterreiner said.
Unterreiner has a unique understanding of Running Start, both as a FVCC employee and parent. Her son Andrew finished his Associate of Applied Science degree in culinary arts the same time he earned his high school diploma.
“The whole idea is to explore college before you leave high school,” Unterreiner said. “Students get more attention at the community college, yet it is still college; you have to toe the line.”
Students can seek two-year degrees in fields ranging from welding and fabrication to accounting and criminal justice. One-year certificates in occupational trades like building allow ambitious students to adapt to a different decorum while maintaining their identities as teenagers.
“By in large students do very well and get a good taste of college,” Shryock said. “They are much better prepared through intense coursework for the realities of college.”
Chad Gassaway still has a year left at Glacier High and during that time, he will receive an associate’s degree from FVCC. He isn’t certain what career path he will ultimately pursue, but he says he knows that taking the initiative to enroll in college while still in high school was a no-brainer.
“I don’t see any reason not to do it,” Gassaway said.
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