June 9, 2003

Beginning of the Road

By Dane Sorensen


Another crop of Ely High School Seniors are preparing for the big world. Graduation is one of the big transitions where a person's role in life greatly changes. No longer a 12th grader, but now an adult. High school is a time when decisions that will shape your entire life are usually made. Sadly, many young people make poor decisions. A few drop out of school. A few start abusing drugs and a surprising number drink to excess. Many who had hoped to go to college are only now realizing that college is not an automatic given. There are many roadblocks to college besides bad grades.

In Minnesota there are always a few high school students who realize college is the key to a better life and take advantage of an incredibly powerful tool for secondary education offered by the State of Minnesota. This tool is the Post Secondary Education Option or PSEO, which allows smart students to take college courses for high school credits. The neat thing about it is that the courses also count toward a college degree.

Some students, like my daughter Alexa, took just a couple of college classes to beef up her musical talents. She attended Ely Memorial School full time, but took college courses in violin, orchestra and band at Mesabi Community College. This helped her to win a scholarship from the University of Wisconsin/Superior in 2001. By her second year at UWS she was first chair in both the concert band and orchestra thanks in part to the higher level of work as a PSEO student.

Other students are more ambitious and apply to go to college full time during 11th and 12th grade. There are usually one or two Ely High School students who receive an Associate of Arts College Degree before they are handed their high school degrees. To these young people I hold a very high admiration and know they will go places in life.

Most Ely students who go full time PSEO usually go to Vermilion Community College. However, a few have gone to other colleges and that requires living in a dorm. My 2003 Ely graduate, Adria, is one of them. She spent her entire 12th grade at St. Scholastica in Duluth. I have heard of other Northland students going to UMD and to the U of M in Minneapolis as well.

With PSEO, the funding for these exceptional students comes from the school district. The district is responsible for paying all college fees and for books. However, the costs of living on campus are not covered. In the case of my daughter Adria, the school district only had to pay the state aid they normally get from the State of Minnesota to St. Scholastica. This does not come close to covering the $18,000 tuition at St. Scholastica, but Scholastica is so committed to the PSEO concept that they waive the remainder. As for the cost of room and board, my wife and I paid for it.

I must say we had to warm up to the idea of loosing our child to college a year earlier. We enjoy our children and consider them a blessing every single day. However, Adria was ready for the challenges of college. I have to admire her courage. Being 3rd in her class at the end of 11th grade, we realized that her GPA could go down due to the higher level of learning expected at college. It would have been easy to coast in high school and collect a few scholarships. However, the chance to get a full year's education at one of the Northland's most respected colleges was worth the risk of a few local scholarship dollars. Our bet was worth it as she has maintained her grades. Furthermore, what she lost in winning a few hundred dollars of scholarship money she gained by receiving one year of college for free, as well as a Benedictine Scholarship for $10,000 a year. A further payoff was her acceptance into Scholastica's honors program.

I admire any student who pursues PSEO. It shows intelligence as well as maturity. Every year thousands of first year college students crash and burn. A few PSEO students crash and burn as well and end up back in homeroom, but most soar.

For PSEO students a bad grade in a college course does show up on their high school transcripts and will lower their GPA. This is not for the faint at heart. Most high school kids belong in high school.

I do have to give the late DFL Governor Rudy Perpich a tip of my hat for starting this program. In so many schools there are gifted and focused students who are bored out of their minds. They do not need babysitters with teaching degrees, they want and need knowledge. For those kids PSEO is a gift. What is wonderful is that it has allowed students from poor families to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps to a college degree and have no mountain of college loans facing them at graduation.

We found that the high school is not very forthcoming on PSEO. You have to push for it and follow-up on all the details. Most students first learn about PSEO by word of mouth from other PSEO students. You have to know when to apply for classes and keep up on the paperwork. The high school is not going to recommend PSEO to their best students. They want to keep the funding and these kids in the classroom.

If you look at old Timberlane yearbooks you will see the number and variety of courses offered by Ely Memorial High School has slowly declined. Many Northland School Districts offer programs for Computer Technology that Ely sorely lacks. With declining enrollment a few classes are now only going to be offered every other year. My youngest daughter found out last week that Art 2 will be only offered every other year. Alternating offerings along with unavoidable scheduling conflicts increase the chances for any student to not be able to take an important class. PSEO can help solve this problem.

If you or your child is interested in PSEO please visit www.pseo.org. This web site explains the program in full detail. It has a list of all the colleges that participate and allow PSEO students. Not all take students for both 11th and 12th grade. Scholastica only offers it to 12th graders and only to a limited few. Vermilion Community College in good old Ely usually has 2 to 5 PSEO students from Ely. VCC offers many great courses as well as a chance to graduate with a real college degree before you graduate from high school.

Yes, I tip my hat off to Governor Perpich. He may have goofed with that chopstick factory or with Iron World, but with PSEO he has and continues to make a difference in the futures of some pretty smart kids. Over 7,000 high school students take advantage of PSEO and they truly represent a bright future for our state.


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