Despite earning straight As, Taylor Swickard was an at-risk Springfield high school student hiding in plain sight. She showed up every day and played in band but was secretly planning to drop out.
"I was not in a very good mental space," said Swickard, 19. "My sophomore year, we had just started coming back from COVID and everything was weird. It was a really hard time."
Then she heard about Middle College, a program that Ozarks Technical Community College offers in partnership with Springfield Public Schools. It provides area juniors and seniors a different and more individualized path to graduation.
"I applied right away," she recalled. "I was like 'This is exactly what I want, what I need."
Middle College, now in its 15th year, was initially created to reduce the dropout rate in Springfield.
"When I got here, we had a very singular focus in terms of the student population we were serving," said Tiffany Brunner, the director for nine years. "At that time, Middle College was definitely an at-risk program for at-risk students that were not on track."
Brunner said the reasons students seek out the program has expanded but Middle College has remained true to its original mission. It continues to help students who struggle in traditional high school get back on track with flexible schedules, small class sizes, staff that goes beyond expectations, and extra resources.
Those extras include learning labs, intersession courses, transportation to and from campus and, if needed, free food and clothing.
Over time, the program opened its doors to students from outside Springfield. It also rapidly expanded its original list of career and technical program options, which now range from auto repair and welding to medical services and the culinary arts.
"That is the largest population," Brunner said of students seeking career and technical training. "And they come for a variety of reasons but a lot of them want to do something more hands-on."
Program allows students early start on college credit
In recent years, the program experienced a surge of applicants who also want a head start on college.
A growing number — including 20 seniors this year, a record — are on track to complete their associate's degree by the time they finish high school.
"That is a very difficult accomplishment to achieve as a high school student," Brunner said, noting many enroll in 15 or more college credits a semester. "Those kids really sacrifice. They give up a lot."
Bryan Schmidt, a senior, wanted the accelerated path. He learned about Middle College from an older brother who had enrolled to pursue technical training.
"I remember coming home every day and hearing about the stories of what he had going on here and why it was different and more convenient for him at Middle College," recalled Schmidt, 17. "And that really inspired me to want to come here."
He was a high-achieving student at Central High School in all honors and Advanced Placement courses, but he did not like the back-to-back class schedule. He wanted to learn in a different format.
"My schedule isn't 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sometimes it's 9:20 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Sometimes it's 9:20 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.," he said of Middle College. "I just really enjoy how modular it is."
Schmidt studies between classes, hanging out in the Middle College lounge or other parts of campus. In the fall, he will attend Missouri State University as a junior in college to pursue a career in physical therapy.
Applicants for the program are interviewed, along with their parents and guardians, and they have access to counselors and mentors. They can also participate in internships to gain work experience.
Brunner, who has a child enrolled in Middle College and another that graduated, said the program accepts most of its applicants.
She said the credit for the program's success is the quality of teachers it has been able to attract. She said they build relationships with students based on the goals the teenagers have for their lives.
"I liken what happens over here is you kind of come in in a cocoon, very sheltered, a little bit nervous, not sure about what's happening — did I make the right decision — and you leave a butterfly," Brunner said. "You fly off ... with all this courage and confidence."
How Middle College evolved beyond original plan
In the mid-2000s, former SPS superintendent Norm Ridder approached OTC Chancellor Hal Higdon about creating an alternative program for high school students. They decided on the Middle College approach after visiting programs in other states.
Higdon said the program, staffed with OTC and SPS employees, has evolved but continues to pay off for students. The college is committed to the program, renovating a new space for students and program staff in 2019.
"It's turned into a choice program," Higdon said.
Ben Hackenwerth, chief strategy and innovation officer for SPS, said the changes were organic, driven by student need and interest. "It's a great example of how a program that is highly successful evolves as their success breeds more success."
He added: "This has been a big win for Springfield Public Schools, our students, and a great collaboration with OTC."
An average of 150 students, mostly juniors and seniors, now attend the program annually. Most are from Springfield but the program also accepts students from a smattering of area districts.
Nearly all admitted students will finish the program, which has graduated more than 1,000 seniors. Students pay a flat fee of $60 a year to attend. The tuition for dual credit courses is paid by the students' home district.
"They've had about 100% graduation rate for a number of years and we know some of those students were not necessarily on that path, or were struggling along that path ... and any student that engages graduates," Hackenwerth said. "Their smaller class sizes, the learning is a little more personalized and it has contributed to those students being highly successful."
Swickard, who arranged her OTC class schedule so she could still participate in band at Parkview High School, is also on track to earn an associate's degree by May. She wants to pursue a writing career.
"It has been a great fit. I am being pushed more than I have in a long time and that is a great feeling," she said. "... It is a healthy push."
Looking back, Swickard said making the switch to Middle College was the right move.
"I was so stressed out that I was really heavily considering dropping out and it's not really something I'm proud of but it is what it is and it's important to share," she said. "I feel like a lot of people, when they look at me, just see an average person and they don't know that I struggled with some things."
Swickard said graduation, and finishing an associate's degree, are within sight.
"A lot of the teachers, they literally have a personal connection with their students and they are rooting for you, 100%," she said.
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Middle College program marks 15 years, sees spike in accelerated path