When Brittany Schenk of University Heights decided to go to college, her mother, Judy, joined her in one of her classes. While most college kids wouldn't want Mom tagging along, Brittany was thrilled.
After all, Brittany was just a sophomore â€” in high school. At 15, she took advantage of the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option program at the eastern campus of Cuyahoga Community College.
The state-administered PSEO program is just one of many ways that community colleges in Northeast Ohio open their doors to the under-18 set, making it possible for parents and kids to be on campus together.
PSEO allows high-achieving high-school students to take college courses with tuition and books paid for by the state of Ohio. Colleges set their own grade-point average and testing requirements, usually most stringent for high-school freshmen and sophomores.
Although PSEO is also offered at area four-year colleges â€” including Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University â€” it is most popular at the area's three community colleges: Cuyahoga Community College, Lorain County Community College and Lakeland Community College.
One reason for that popularity at community colleges is that a student can theoretically graduate from high school with an associate's degree and enter college as a junior. That's exactly what Brittany plans to do.
"That's not only good for her, but if you think about saving for college, you can actually reduce the cost by 50 percent," Judy Schenk is quick to point out.
She admits, however, that it takes a great deal of planning to make sure that Brittany not only gets the classes for the associate's degree, but also doesn't neglect what she needs to do to graduate from high school. Brittany has been home-schooled since the fourth grade, but as a high-school sophomore she began distance-learning through the Ohio Distance & Electronic Learning Academy, based in Akron, which monitors her progress.
In addition, Judy has worked with colleges to make sure that Brittany's Tri-C classes will transfer and count toward her bachelor's degree. While some colleges require students to retake basic courses, Judy learned that most won't "pick apart" an intact associate's degree the way they might with a student who had just taken random classes.
Britanny took two classes in her first semester at Tri-C. Two other home-schooled friends signed up for English with her and her mom joined her for ceramics â€” but Judy decided to just audit the class.
"I didn't want grades to be any kind of an issue since Brittany was just starting," she explains. "I just wanted to be with Brittany and have fun."
Last spring, Brittany navigated three courses on her own. This year, she'll take four during the fall semester. She says that her age hasn't ever made a difference in how she was treated by teachers or other students, though she admits that the coursework can be tough.
"Academically, it was challenging," Brittany says. "I had to go from having no homework â€” getting my work done during the day â€” to all of a sudden going to classes during the day and then having papers due the next week. There were always tons of papers to be written. I enjoyed the challenges, but there were times I was ready to throw everything out and just stop."
That workload is one reason that starting college early isn't for every high-school student, says Susan Schillings, director of admissions and records for Tri-C's western campus in Parma. Last spring, Tri-C had 867 high-school students enrolled in its PSEO program, of which 462 attended the western campus.
"Your child will be initiating an academic record," Schillings says. "Do you really want them to start it with a failing grade that stays on the transcript forever? It's an opportunity, but if the child isn't ready it also is high risk academically and for the future."
Besides a poor mark on their permanent transcript, Schillings says pushing a child into college has the potential to foster negative feelings about higher education.
But creating a positive outlook on college is the goal behind many of the creative programs for kids going on at Northeast Ohio community colleges.
This fall, Lorain County Community College launched the area's first-ever "Early College High School" for 60 students in the Elyria public schools. Lorain schools will offer the program next year.
The program is designed for first-generation college students who will attend all four years of high school on the campus of Lorain County Community College, says Cindy Kushner, LCCC's marketing team leader for high-school programming. Coursework will intermingle traditional high-school classes with special seminars to learn more about college.
Kushner says the goal is "to have students ready to take college courses, even on a full-time basis, their last two years of high school."
Another LCCC program, Teacher Education Exploration, in partnership with Lorain County Joint Vocational Services, allows high-school students interested in teaching careers to take classes one day a week on campus and to get actual teaching experience in area public schools.
The College Tech Prep program combines students' interest in technology with high academic requirements, making the technology training a launching pad to a full college program. Lakeland Community College in Kirtland offers a similar program, which involves two years of high school and two years for an associate's degree, after which students can finish a bachelor's in an additional two years.
Besides specialized programs for high schoolers, kids as young as 18 months can take noncredit classes at community colleges.
"I see it as a steppingstone to education as a lifelong process," says Michele Henes, lead coordinator of children's programming for Lorain County Community College. "We are opening their minds to college and that they can be successful there."
Henes runs Lorain's College For Kids program, which features a variety of programming throughout the year for children and teens. Classes include everything from academics, such as reading and math, to Spanish and sign language. In the summer, kids can attend a camp on campus.
Lakeland has a similar College For Kids program, as well as special summer classes and camps. Nan Mayer, LCC supervisor for recreation and youth programs, says she starts getting calls in January for Lakeland's summer camps.
Tony Marinelli teaches Lakeland's "Small Fry Science" in the summer for children in first through sixth grades and "Taking Off Into Science" for teens. He says that access to more advanced facilities is what makes a college campus the perfect place for kids to learn.
"I think the neat thing about a college campus is that their resources are usually much better than what you find in public schools. So when you can take a kid who's impressionable and you can get them inside a physics lab, it really entices them and gets them excited about science," says Marinelli, who also teaches eighth-grade earth science at Willoughby Middle School.
At camp, Marinelli even covers topics found on the Ohio proficiency test. But without homework and textbooks, the kids usually just think they're having fun at a great camp.
Tri-C's summer camps are geared toward middle- and high-school students with specific interests. For example, the college offers a special jazz camp and an archaeology camp.
But perhaps one of the easiest ways to take advantage of the great resources at our local community college is to attend classes yourself. All three community colleges have preschools on campus to make it easier for adult students. Lakeland and Lorain also have child-care centers for students' children. At Lakeland, for example, students taking at least one class can leave a child from the ages of 2 1/2 to 10 for $1.25 per hour. At Lorain, both credit and noncredit students can leave children from ages 3 to 12 for $2 an hour.