High school graduates are increasingly showing up at Inver Hills Community College in need of remedial teaching, and Tim Wynes would like to do something about it.

"This issue has been growing," said Wynes, president of the Inver Grove Heights college.

So the college this year has launched an initiative with districts in Dakota County to address the problem by targeting high school students who are sometimes overlooked: Those in the "academic middle," who are most likely to attend community colleges and trade schools.

Inver Hills' pilot program, started last month in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District, targets that group with tailored math and language classes. A similar program, involving about 50 students initially, is planned for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District this fall.

"We're trying to break down the barrier between 12th grade and beyond," said Shane Schmeichel, the Rosemount School District's magnet school specialist, who has been working with Inver Hills. "We have many pathways for those at the high-achieving end but not many pathways for the average students."

Word of the program appears to be spreading. Educators from the college, Burnsville and Rosemount will be discussing the program Feb. 29 at an all-day conference in Brooklyn Park.

Wynes and other college professionals say that it is not unusual for 80 to 90 percent of incoming freshmen to need help with math. In reading, the number that need remedial help can be 50 to 60 percent.

The eventual plan is to create a dual enrollment program whereby high school students will get credit for high school and college courses, giving them a head start on getting a two- or four-year degree.

"We're looking at the kids that can benefit the most," said Doug Binsfeld, dean of fine arts and humanities at Inver Hills. "We want to create opportunities for the academic middle."

Essentially, what Inver Hills will be doing, Binsfeld said, is aligning its curriculum with that of the high schools so that more rigorous classes and teaching is offered as early as the sophomore year.

"The students in the middle ... that student is maybe thinking about college but maybe doesn't have an idea of what it might take to succeed," Wynes said. "If we don't interact with those students ... they are going to struggle."

Better preparation

College instructors will work with the high school teachers on ways to upgrade the curriculum.

As a result, high schoolers will be better prepared for college and also save potentially thousands of dollars because they will have accumulated college credits by the time they enroll at a higher ed campus.

The average tuition costs for Inver Hills is more than $5,000 a year. At the Minnesota State Colleges and University system, which also will accept the transfer credits, the costs are more than $8,000 a year.

The Inver Hills program is similar to the college in the schools program offered through high schools and the University of Minnesota, but with two key differences: This program will target high school students in the 30th to 70th percentile brackets and also serve as a feeder system for community colleges and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

One of the biggest changes that the Inver Hills program will bring is eventually making the senior year more rigorous for students wanting to get a head start on college.

"We need to work with the students who are going to be our students," Binsfeld said. "Over the years there has been a disconnect about what is expected in college."

Countywide effort

High schools throughout the county are looking for ways to strengthen their connections with local community and technical colleges, according to Lisa Snyder, superintendent of the Lakeville School District.

Snyder meets regularly with other superintendents in the county, and she said that the community-college link is one that is frequently discussed, especially as a way to prepare students to find employment.

The West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan School District also is studying the issue, even going so far as to look at adding a fifth year to high school to allow students a jump on an associate degree or four-year degree.

The idea was proposed by a consultant working with a committee studying how to make over the district.

School officials have not seriously delved into the proposal, but a task force report last month suggested it could be a way for the district to distinguish itself, attract more kids and save families money.

"Changing the structure of the high school years and compressing the number of years to a college degree ... has the potential to improve graduation rates and better prepare students for entry into high-skill careers," states the West St. Paul Strategic Redesign Advisory Committee report. "Blending grades not only benefits gifted students but also students most at risk."

Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281