From middle school to middle college

Parkway Center City is Philadelphia's first high school where students can also earn an associate’s degree. The teens started their college courses this week.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Adrian Mondragon is only 14 years old, but today he started his first day of college. Just weeks after graduating from middle school, Mondragon enrolled in a general education course at Community College of Philadelphia.

“It’s a big change from middle school,” said Mondragon. “You think of going into high school as something a little bit higher than middle school, but not too much. But when you come and see this, it’s a whole different [thing.] The game has changed a lot.”

A big change, indeed, and not only for him, but for the city, too.

Mondragon is one of 132 students enrolled in Philadelphia’s first middle college, at Parkway Center City High School.

“We know that when students are exposed to a college environment in high school, they are more successful in college and career,” said Superintendent William Hite.

This week, the students took their first college courses in the school’s Summer Bridge program, where they got a jump-start on their coursework. Those who succeed will receive their first college credits.

Started in 1974 in New York City, middle colleges are high schools whose curriculum is a blend of high school and college-level classes. Upon graduation, students receive a diploma and an associate’s degree. There are about 50 middle colleges in the country, and Parkway is the first in the state. The program will be paid for by the District, costing around $4 million, paid over four years to CCP.

“To be a part of that is exciting, because every single middle college is unique,” said Parkway Center City principal Anh Nguyen-Brown, former principal of Nebinger Elementary. “And every city and every state is different. So to make it our own, that’s the challenge, but that’s the [point of] pride.”

One hundred and forty-five students from across the city were accepted to fill 150 slots. The ideal candidate showed strong academic performance—only one C is allowed in major subjects – kept a clean disciplinary record, had strong standardized test scores, showed aspirations for attending college, and participated in the required interview process.

Also, in order to be officially enrolled, students had to attend the school’s Summer Bridge program.

On Tuesday, the students began college before they began high school. At the end of the five-week summer program, the students will have earned their first college credit.

“It helps you realize what college really is and if you are ready and you want to take college courses," said Sonya Mendoza. She and Mondragon are enrolled in a Survey in Justice course.

“It’s really cool. We have a lot of responsibilities, and they treat us like adults so we’ll know what is expected in college,” she said.

Graduates of the middle college can earn certificates in entrepreneurship, computer programming and software development, and an associate’s degree in liberal arts. But students can also get a taste of campus life with clubs and programs such as chess, poetry, dance, anime and more.

In 2011, Hite, then a superintendent in Prince George’s County, Maryland, saw the opening of a middle college – Academy of Health Sciences at Prince George’s Community College. The school had a positive impact on students, especially among those who had low aspirations for college.

“The thing is our kids can do it,” said Nguyen-Brown. “Why not Philadelphia? Why not our kids? Our kids deserve it. They can do it. So why not provide them with the opportunity to do it?”

According to District spokesman Lee Whack, Hite wanted to provide the same opportunity to local students. Whack said that about half of the students enrolled in middle college are first-generation college students.

Mondragon is one of those students. Fresh out of middle school, he said he doesn’t know exactly what college he wants to go to other than an Ivy League university. But college is important to him, he said, because no one else in his family finished college, and he’s ready to be the first.

“I look at myself as the one who needs to do this for the whole family.”