Daymara Fernández is 14 and she’s still in middle school, but when she starts high school next fall she will already have three credits from Florida International University.
The eighth-grader is part of a group of 20 students at Ponce de Leon Middle School in Coral Gables taking a college-level class as part of a dual-enrollment program with FIU. The pilot program started in January with an introduction to environmental science course given at Ponce de Leon by James Jiler, an FIU professor.
Twice a week, the group of students gets a little taste of higher education.
“I think it’s really cool to have this opportunity,” said Daymara, who said she would like to major in science when she goes to college. “[The class] is not too difficult but it isn’t like a kindergarten class, either.”
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I think it’s really cool to have this opportunity. [The class] is not too difficult but it isn’t like a kindergarten class, either.
Daymara Fernández, a student at Ponce de Leon Middle School
To enroll in the science class, the Ponce de Leon students had to take a college entrance exam called PERT and meet the same GPA requirements as high school students taking college courses. When they finish the program, the middle schoolers will have credits they can transfer to state universities.
“The students are very excited, this is a tremendous opportunity for them,” said Martha Chang, the school principal and creator of the initiative. “For some of these students, their parents aren’t college graduates, so this helps them see early on that it is possible to go to college.”
Ponce de Leon has a large number of low-income students and more than 80 percent of the student body gets free or reduced lunch, according to the principal.
Chang said her idea to create a dual-enrollment program was well-received by the school district and by Elizabeth Bejar, the vice president of academic affairs at FIU, who helped coordinate the program.
Dual-enrollment programs are common in high schools, enabling some students to graduate with credits equivalent to up to four university semesters. But some middle school students in Florida have faced resistance when they try to enroll in college-level courses.
In Central Florida, one family filed a complaint against Lake-Sumter Community College after the school refused to admit their 12-year-old daughter. The Department of Education ruled in favor of the parents in 2012 and advised the college that it could not reject students based on their age.
The Miami-Dade school district has had a dual-enrollment program with Miami Dade College for years and some middle school students have participated. One of these students is Antoinette Mena, who attended classes at age 13 at the college’s Kendall campus.
“It was weird, but not difficult,” recalled Antoinette, who is now 15 and in high school, where she continues to take college-level courses.
“It’s a good program, it allows them to accelerate their education,” said her father, Antonio Mena. “The classes are a bit more difficult than regular classes, but she has the ability to do them.”
Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar