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New CCS program helping students pursue top education

American Honors offers university-level classes

Russell Vannoy had no grand plan for college. He figured he’d attend Spokane Falls Community College first, then transfer to an in-state college to finish his degree.

American Honors, a new program at Community Colleges of Spokane, has the international relations major aiming higher. Vannoy has applied to three elite private schools – Cornell, Georgetown and Vanderbilt universities – as well as two state schools, the University of Washington and Eastern Washington University.

The first-of-its-kind program offers the same academic rigor a student would find at a four-year university, but at a community college price. Tuition and fees would run 15 percent to 23 percent lower than at Washington’s four-year regional universities and 45 percent less than Washington’s state universities, based on 2012-13 prices. Most classes are taught online, and counselors work with students individually on credits and applying to their ideal college.

“It seemed like a good opportunity,” Vannoy said.

American Honors, a Denver-based organization, partnered with Spokane’s community colleges last fall to pilot the program. More than 228 students applied; 50 were accepted. The applicants were screened for grade-point averages, competitive Advanced Placement and SAT scores, and extracurricular and professional accomplishments.

“Already two have transferred to four-year universities – Emerson in Boston and BYU Hawaii,” said Anne Tucker, spokeswoman for Community Colleges of Spokane. “Another has received a full-ride scholarship to Whitworth” after having been turned down previously, she said.

Applications are now being accepted for fall 2013; there’s room for 160 participants.

“It was a good fit for our mission,” said Community Colleges of Spokane Chancellor Christine Johnson. “It was a matter of bringing additional rigor and opportunity to our college … being innovative, having more options for students and sustainability for the college.”

Students in the program must take a two-credit class to get to know each other and establish a “learning community.” After that, students undertake integrated coursework focusing on English, science, social studies and math, while also emphasizing skills such as critical thinking, analysis of materials, hypothesis development and effective communication, college officials said.

The small classes use a digital learning platform. The students sit in front of webcams at a computer and appear in “Brady Bunch”-like tiles on-screen with an instructor. Some students may be sitting together in an area called the “learning lounge” at the college while others might be off-site.

The students also do group-based work and projects outside the virtual classroom. For example, students taking introduction to literature hosted a poetry night last term.

“The classes always generate discussion,” said Meghin Howard, a pre-med student in the program.

At the beginning of the program, students are paired with transfer specialists for individualized counseling to help them meet their goal of going to a university of their choosing.

“Not just transferring, but setting you up to transfer and knowing what you need,” Howard said. Advisers help with financial aid planning too.

Elizabeth Fischer, a math major, never imagined going to a school out of state, but American Honors has changed that.

“I’m really hoping to hear from Stanford,” she said. “That’s a lot different than Western (Washington University).”

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