Since 1997 Washtenaw Technical Middle College has offered students a remarkable opportunity to achieve college success while still in high school. From humble beginnings, the school has grown to be the largest and most consistently successful middle college in the country. Furthermore, WTMC’s pioneering efforts have helped pave the way for the more than 100 early and middle colleges in Michigan today.
The concept of the of the middle college was conceived in New York in 1974, when LaGuardia Middle College High School was founded. The movement was an attempt to address two problems: first, when students from at-risk populations manage to make it into college, they too often drop out or struggle to complete a college degree. Second, many high-performing high school students experience the “empty senior year,” in which -- already accepted to college -- they spend their final semester biding time in easy classes, leaving them poorly prepared for the rigors of university study the next year. WTMC’s mission is to address these problems. The school works to ensure every single student builds a record of success in college courses. And, since students themselves choose a specific program of study, every semester until graduation holds meaning and challenge.
By the late 1990’s, Michigan high schools were moving away from providing technical and career training. Educational and business leaders in Washtenaw County recognized an unmet need for training in these skills. Simultaneously, Washtenaw Community College leadership saw an opportunity. Enrolling high schoolers could help the college recruit students for technical programs and provide a meaningful head start in college for the students themselves. As a result, WCC Vice President Guy Alteiri and Intermediate School District Associate Superintendent Bill Miller led a county-wide effort to develop a plan for the school that would become WTMC: the only middle college in the country dedicated to technical education. This work was supported and guided by Dr. Cherry Wagonlander, a national leader in the Middle College movement who started Mott Middle College in Flint in 1991.
In August, 1997, 47 excited tenth- and eleventh-graders from various Washtenaw County communities arrived on campus to be the first WTMC cohort. In the early days, enrollment in the school was perceived as a bit of a risky proposition, leading to an interesting mix of driven, ambitious students and those who had exhausted other opportunities. Nevertheless, even then many students achieved notable successes, whether transferring to top universities, or joining the workforce.
None of this early success would have happened without the enthusiastic support of then-WCC Board members Griff McDonald and Bill Davis, and the institutional support provided by then-president Gunder Myran. They worked to make the politically-sensitive case for the college to charter a high school, and then to reassure a college faculty skeptical about having high school students on campus. Eventually, many college faculty, impressed by the students they met, stepped up to support the program. Even more importantly, the students themselves proved able to rise to the expectations of a college environment.
The first ten years of WTMC’s existence were characterized by freedom and experimentation---with great possibility but uneven execution. Teachers created original, exciting curriculum that aligned with college expectations, and administration encouraged everyone to think differently, to build something far different from a traditional high school. As a public school academy, WTMC enjoys the flexibility to adjust its calendar, instructional time, instructional roles, and graduation requirements with more agility than traditional public schools. However, a state of constant change left room for improvement. For several years, we enrolled students in both fall and winter semesters, creating a never-ending cycle of applications and admissions. During this time nearly 35% of incoming students left the program before graduating. And yet, despite these setbacks one feature remained constant: students were expected to demonstrate skills, rather than just pass classes, in order to progress to college classes. Instead of gathering credits for time served, WTMC students have always been expected to grow and change as a result of their efforts.
As the program matured, WTMC refined its approach to ensuring student success. Early on, staff member Ann Broderick developed the soft skills curriculum, a backbone of how we evaluate student readiness and an essential part of our common language as a school. Beginning in 2009, faculty and staff, under the leadership of dean Karl Covert, worked to stabilize and refine other essential pillars of the school: critical thinking and reading support courses were added for all students, improving their college readiness and offering support for our most vulnerable students. Faculty began working in structured, truly collaborative departments. These efforts showed dramatic results. By 2013, the school’s graduation rate had climbed to nearly 95% and its students were earning, in college courses, a 3.39 grade point average.
By 2011, Dr. Covert introduced the idea of expanding to serve ninth-grade students with a new interdisciplinary program focusing on sustainability. The WCC board and college president Rose Bellanca offered encouragement, permitting the school to start a 28-student pilot program in fall of 2012. Under the guidance and leadership of Sam Rosewig, within five years the WTMC ninth-grade cohort grew to 100 students. Student support and extracurricular activities expanded as well, including a Math Olympiad team, a FIRST robotics team, the ethics bowl club, and the middle college music club. The WTMC ultimate frisbee team, a longstanding feature of student life, continued winning championships and awards locally and regionally.
Today, while WTMC students represent about 2% of the WCC population, they earn 10% of the college’s associate degrees and half of the college’s math and science degrees. The school has been ranked the seventh-best high school in America, as well as receiving accolades for “beating the odds,” meaning students surpass expectations and achieve well beyond what their socioeconomic situations would predict. WTMC students’ SAT scores consistently place the school in the top 1% of Michigan high schools. Twenty-five years after the school started, WTMC graduates hundreds of students annually, over 85% of whom earn associate degrees with their high school diplomas, and nearly half are the first generation in their families to graduate from college.