OLEAN — The Olean City School District wants more of its students to be halfway toward earning their college diploma by the time they graduate high school.

The district is developing what officials call an “Academy of Excellence,” which would formalize the pathways already available for Olean High School students to earn college credit but also add additional support and resources.

A recently awarded $200,000 grant will help the OCSD develop the program this upcoming school year and possibly launch it in the 2019-20 school year.

“The idea is to try to get more kids to graduate high school with not only their high school diploma, but also an associate’s degree,” said OSCD Superintendent Rick Moore.

Roughly 70 college credit hours are already available to OHS students through Jamestown Community College and St. Bonaventure University dual enrollment courses, as well as the district’s Project Lead The Way pre-engineering program.

Moore said students who enroll in the Academy of Excellence would be provided a roadmap to earning the roughly 60 credit hours needed to get an associate’s degree. He noted that although not every student will actually finish all 60 credits hours, they’ll still have made progress toward their college degree.

He expects about a quarter of all OHS students to enroll in the academy in its first year, and hopes eventually half of all OHS students will be enrolled.

Moore credits 2017 OHS graduate Saad Mirza as the inspiration behind the academy. Mirza was able to complete roughly 75 college credit hours while at OHS — good enough to earn him a JCC associate’s degree a whole month before he graduated from high school.

“(Mirza and I) started talking and he thought there were a lot of other students that could have done what he did had they maybe been given the support,” Moore said.

Mirza, who recently completed his freshman year at Princeton University, said in an email the academy will help Olean students achieve the same things students in wealthier areas achieve.

“This program will level the playing field,” he said.

Jen Mahar, OCSD coordinator of state and federal aid programs, acknowledged it’s more difficult for smaller, rural school districts to consistently offer a wide range of college credit-bearing courses.

“With the number of the students that we have enrolled, there are certain things that we’re not able to offer on a consistent basis,” she said, “but considering different options and partnering together … that can be really beneficial.”

The funding to develop the academy comes via the Title IV Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant, part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which the district applied for in February.

The 15-month grant is geared more toward creating a model than supporting the program long term, Mahar noted. Moore said the district hopes to receive more grant funding in future years.

The $200,000 will help the district dedicate one of its employees this school year to getting the academy up and running. It will also help the district provide more professional development for teachers, as well as SAT and ACT prep for students enrolled in the academy.

Moore added the district may also use the funding to help students pay for their dual enrollment course textbooks.

Many of the JCC courses, via JCC’s College Connections program, are taught at the high school by certified OHS teachers. OCSD said there is no tuition cost to students for these courses, as it is entirely covered through financial aid.

There is currently just one St. Bonaventure course, a biotechnology class started last year, offered at the high school. While students can take St. Bonaventure classes on campus via the university's Giant Step program, OCSD officials have previously noted only about five students a year actually take a class at St. Bonaventure due to the commute. On-campus St. Bonaventure courses cost $180 per credit hour for high school students — about a third of the normal price.

Moore said he hopes the Academy Excellence will lead to the district offering more St. Bonaventure classes at the high school.

He noted it’s vital for high schools to offer college credit so students can not only save money on their college education, but also stand out when applying to their dream schools.

“I just think it’s becoming more and more competitive of a world,” he said. 

(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at tdinki@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)