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  • Writer's pictureMason Edwards!

High School Students on Campus: A Divisive Experiment

By Mason Edwards, Features Editor for the University Echo

Catie Sanhueza discussing projects with Trinity Rizer, Jamaal Quinones, and Adriana Camargo. Monday, September 18, 2023. Abby White, Staff Photographer

Nearly two months into their semesters, high school and college students aired their concerns and challenges regarding the new University High program.

In a unique partnership, Hamilton County Schools and UTC enrolled 56 students from 10 different high schools into college classes, letting them earn high school and college credit simultaneously– also known as University High. The two partners share the cost, so it’s free for a group of hand-picked students from diverse backgrounds.

The University High Principal, Arielle Garcia Hayes, doesn’t view its educators as traditional teachers but rather as advisors. According to Hayes, the program provides a flexible learning environment that fosters self-advocacy and independence.

“We empower students to learn how to do these things on their own, get over hurdles,” said Hayes. “We're very clear to students… I want to get you more of what it is that you're interested in.”

With freedom to develop academically and socially, the students have near-unrestricted access to campus. According to Hayes, the program keeps tabs on the safety and location of its students through cell phone and group chat communication. Each student knows the main rule: no visiting the residence halls.

“Parents were nervous in the beginning, and I told them I'm a mom first, like these are my children,” Hayes recalled. “Like I'm going to treat them and advocate for them and their safety just like I would my own child.”

“But because the kids really want to be here, I don't worry much about them not speaking up about being uncomfortable about something,” Hayes added.

In addition to bringing new opportunities to teenagers, students feel the program saves them from public school. After studying in India for several years, University High student Shi Mae Bowling felt isolated at East Ridge High School. She found the constant fights, substance abuse and unruly classmates distracting.

“I really just wanted to get my love of learning back,” Bowling commented on her decision to enroll in University High. “You know, I don't have to, like, take a super long route to get to my classroom to avoid a fight anymore.”

Bowling’s new friend, University High student Jamaal Quinones agreed with her, explaining that he no longer needs to feel as “tense, on guard” on UTC’s campus. He would not go back to traditional high school, even though his principal won’t let him play sports.

“Sadly, I can't participate in sports…,” Quinones said. While some high schools allowed University High students to play sports, his principal decided against it. “So, I can't do sports like football and track, but I can still do things like Beta Club, NHS, Natural Society, which is kind of confusing.”

Despite those challenges, sophomore Meira Barlow viewed the program favorably– and a few wished they had the same opportunity. Taking a break from her marketing studies, she felt that all students, no matter their age, share a common goal.

“I think it’s a good thing, because if it helps them learn better, that’s what we’re here for,” Barlow said. “I don’t see anything wrong with having them be on campus versus online.”

UTC first-year student Sarah Freeman regrets attending Cleveland State Community College during her junior and senior years of high school. As a person who succeeds in school, Freeman explained she felt like a guinea pig in an experiment– which led to her taking a gap year.

“A program like this will test your limits,” Freeman warned teenagers, but added that UTC’s program might differ. “Once I was in it, I was stuck. There’s not an exit plan.”

Because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, University High cannot view the collegiate grades of its students. Working around this, Hayes explained they created an environment that encourages students to speak up and be truthful about their studies, and UTC places registration holds to protect students from dropping classes.

When asked whether dropouts would have a soft landing, Hayes admitted that no plan exists because no student has requested out of the program yet.

“Well, I think it'll be a lot of conversations with mom and student, but I also want them to feel like they can choose their own career, their own path, their future pathway,” she said. “And if this is not for them, I think we will do the best that we can to support them.”

It’s difficult to put into words, according to sophomore and exercise science major Morgan Harvey, but high schoolers lack a certain spatial awareness. She studies with up to 15 University High students in her Introduction to Sociology class.

“The people that I sit with are from University High, just talking to them knowing a little more about their personal lives, I can tell that they’re really good people just trying to go to college and get their degree,” Harvey explained. “You can tell they're definitely high school students, but their work ethic has been pretty much up to standard for being in a college class.”

Finishing up his meal in the University Center, junior Garrett Watts felt that there’s no need for physically present students when online programs exist, particularly as his classes are nearing capacity.

“It’s not that they don’t gain anything it’s that they’re not missing out on anything either,” Watts reasoned. “They’re still in high school. They still have the opportunity to go to college.”

Other students felt jaded by University High’s acquisition of Lupton Hall’s conference and study rooms– spaces Hayes thanked UTC for and called “prime real estate.” Additional concerns arose from the lack of benefit to UTC, given that there’s no commitment from the high schoolers to enroll. Meanwhile, enrollment numbers report the largest freshman class ever.

The selection process for the next junior cohort will begin sometime before December, according to Hayes. The program will not add any new seniors.

Earlier in the month, the Chattanooga Times Free Press examined the program’s experiential learning. Additionally, UTC’s Communications and Marketing Team covered the original announcement.

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