Monday marked the first day of school for tens of thousands of Anchorage students and the first day of the school district's latest program: the Alaska Middle College School, where students can earn an associate's degree and high school diploma at the same time, at no cost to them.
About 140 Anchorage high school juniors and seniors have enrolled in the middle college and on Monday morning, they split into five classrooms at the University of Alaska Anchorage Chugiak-Eagle River Campus to meet one another and attend lessons on how college works.
"There's a lot more independence in your future," Teacher David Maker told one group of teenagers. "You're not going to have the amount of babysitting you've had the past two years."
For the remainder of the week, the high school students will attend "boot camp" classes before they're thrust into UAA lectures with university students.
"They're university students, they have a university ID badge," said Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop. "We're not turning the university into high school, high school is stepping up the game."
While the middle college students will attend regular university-level classes, they will also have access to two high school teachers who will hold "support seminars" in the building to review material, said Kathy Moffitt, ASD's administrative projects director.
Students not ready for a certain subject at the university level can take an online high school class in the subject, Moffitt said.
Aside from the two teachers, the middle college also employs a part-time counselor and another part-time employee to provide instructional support, Moffitt said.
School funding pays for those four staff jobs, plus students' tuition and fees for their university classes, Bishop said.
The district budgeted $952,000 for the middle college for the current school year, according to the district's chief financial officer.
"We've really just tried to take state dollars and reinvest them in the state," Bishop said. "We didn't try to recreate something the state already has."
Bishop and Moffitt helped create the Alaska Middle College School years ago when they both worked at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. It opened in 2012 and enrolled Mat-Su students.
In the past year, the ASD said it would take over the Eagle River-based middle college and open it to Anchorage students starting in August. The Mat-Su district said it would open up a new middle college in Palmer this fall, closer to where its students live.
On Monday, some Anchorage high school students said they decided to enroll in the middle college program so they could save money, keep full-time jobs and get adjusted to college early.
"I plan on playing volleyball in college and I wasn't about to try and kill myself figuring out college and sports at the same time, so it's a nice introduction to the craziness of college," said 16-year-old Mazie Edwards, who previously went to Chugiak High School.
Maggie Dobson, 16, said the middle college's flexible schedule will allow her to hold down a job at a local pizzeria during the school year. She hopes to graduate high school with an associate's degree, she said, so she could get a job with benefits, including health insurance.
"Here, I can get my associate's degree for free while I'm in high school," Dobson said. "So when I turn 18 and graduate, I can move out and get a state job."
Brandon Hernandez, a 17-year-old senior, said he wanted a head start on his nursing degree. He hopes to get his freshman year of college out of the way while in high school.
"I can jump ahead and save some money," Hernandez said.
To enroll at the middle college, students must pass a test to enroll in freshman-level math or English, Moffitt said.
UAA Interim Chancellor Sam Gingerich said over the past 15 to 20 years he has watched middle colleges spring up across the country.
“A primary reason this is done is because it does support college-going rates,” he said. “Students who attend middle college typically graduate high school at significantly higher rates and then go to college at significantly higher rates.”
In Alaska, Moffitt said 75 percent of the Mat-Su students who went to the middle college stayed in the UA system after high school graduation, which Gingerich acknowledged as a big benefit for the university.
“Clearly this is one of the strategies that we are using to increase college-going rates and then specifically to increase college-going rates here, within the UA system,” he said.