YORK -- When Taylor Murner graduates from high school in June, he'll have a semester of college under his belt.
That makes earning a degree easier and less costly for the 18-year-old York Comprehensive High School senior, who plans to enroll at York Technical College this year and eventually transfer to Clemson University to study engineering.
Murner is one of 55 York students enrolled in a dual-credit course. The classes, offered in partnership with York Tech, challenge students with college-level rigor and reward them with credit on their transcripts. But York schools offer just nine dual-credit courses in seven subjects -- engineering, construction, architectural design, health science, computer engineering, accounting and automotive technology. The limited number of such courses leaves out many of the district's 1,068 high school students.
Superintendent Russell Booker and his staff said they're working to change that. Next year, they hope to offer dual credit in English, math and science classes, which should appeal to a wider swath of students.
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It's critical, Booker said, to his push to create a "college-going culture."
In a school district with a 65 percent poverty rate, he said shifting parents' and students' attitudes toward college can be an uphill battle.
"A lot of our parents have that mindset that since they didn't go to college, their kid doesn't have a chance to go to college," said Ron Roveri, director of the Floyd D. Johnson Technology Center, where all of the district's dual- credit courses are offered. "We're trying to change that perception."
District leaders and teachers have been meeting more often with students to discuss their future plans, said Audrey Allan, director of middle and secondary programs. They're adding programs and reaching out to parents.
The goal is to offer a variety of options to get students interested in, and working toward, education beyond high school.
Bright spots have emerged.
York schools' college enrollment rate is up to 55 percent from a five-year average of 47.6 percent, according to district figures. Last year's graduating class racked up $5 million in scholarships, more than ever. Last year, 76 percent of students who took Advanced Placement tests passed; that's higher than the state and national average of 56 percent. The number of students who took the ACT college entrance exam jumped to 120 in 2008 from 90 the year before.
Still, there's a lot of work to be done. The percentage of York students who took the SAT college entrance exam, for instance, fell to 39 percent in 2008 from 43 percent in 2004. Only 5.6 percent of students are enrolled in Advanced Placement courses, down from 6.3 percent the previous year.
Booker said he thinks offering dual credit is a key way to spark students' interest in college.
But adding courses might not be easy.
For one, with next year's budget still up in the air, it's not clear how much money will be available to pay the required $50 per course, plus book and material costs.
Because district officials have pledged to offer the courses for free, they must find the money.
"If kids are told they have to pay a $50 fee ... that's going to be the deciding factor," Roveri said.
Another obstacle is getting teachers who are certified to lead the courses, Allan said. Certification requires a master's degree and special training in the subject.
Allan said the district is talking with York Tech and USC-Lancaster about how to make that work. Possibilities include sending professors to York or bussing students to the college campuses.
The hope, Allan said, is to keep the classes at York Comprehensive High.
"Our students' chance of success is going to be greater if you're not changing everything up on them," she said.
Rock Hill schools, a district more than three times the size of York's, takes a slightly different approach. The district offers 40 dual-credit courses. Ten of those are in core academic subjects like English, math, history and science. The rest are in specialized fields like those offered in York. Students pay between $50 for most courses and up to $200 for some.
When Murner completes both dual-credit courses in which he's enrolled, he'll have finished five.
"It kind of frees us up in college," he said. "It'll make it a lot cheaper. It's really a smarter choice."
Murner said he wishes his school offered classes this year for college credit in English, math and other subjects. He would have taken as many as he could, he said, and possibly gone straight from high school to his sophomore year of college.