Brayan Quevedo, right, a senior at Sprague High School, and teacher Jamie Ellis, left, on April 23, 2021. Quevedo is one of about 175 Salem-Keizer seniors taking college courses through the new Senior Launch program (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Melissa Espinoza, 18, had planned to graduate from North Salem High School in February, one semester early.

But early in the year, she got an email from the school offering her another option: stay enrolled at North while taking spring classes at Chemeketa Community College. Her tuition, books and supplies would be free, paid for by her high school.

“At first I kind of thought it was a joke,” Espinoza said.

It wasn’t.

Espinoza is one of 175 high school seniors in the Salem-Keizer district now taking college courses full time as part of a new partnership between the district and Chemeketa called Senior Launch.

The program grew out of a late night phone call in early December between some Salem-Keizer administrators focusing on career and technical education, and Sara Hastings, Chemeketa’s dean for high school programs.

James Weber, assistant principal for the district’s Career Technical Education Center, said they realized Salem-Keizer had a higher number of seniors eligible to graduate a semester early, about 800 across the district.

That’s likely because of changes to the district’s schedule during a year of mostly online school, he said. Students took fewer courses at a time but completed them more quickly, so classes that would normally last a semester were done in one quarter. That means some seniors finished their graduation requirements earlier in the year.

Without the draw of high school social life, in-person clubs, sports or music ensembles, Weber said district administrators expected more students eligible to graduate early would choose to do so.

For students intending to pursue a college education, that was worrisome. The transition to college can be challenging, particularly for students who struggle to cover the cost or don’t have college-educated parents to help them navigate the shift to more demanding classes.

Weber said they worried some students would be too daunted to attend or figure out financial aid if they had an eight month gap between high school and college. They began thinking about how the district could help those students meet their educational goals.

“Mentorship, guidance and counseling in the first term at college can make an incredible impact,” Weber said.

Out of meetings over winter break, the district and Chemeketa sketched out the Senior Launch program. It began during Chemeketa's spring quarter in March.

Salem-Keizer covers the full cost of tuition, books and fees for enrolled students and designate a teacher at each high school to serve as a guide and mentor for seniors.

Weber estimates that will come to about $275,000 for the spring term. Costs in future years will depend on the number of students enrolled. The district is using a mix of state money earmarked for high school student success and college preparation, including Measure 98 funding, Weber said.

Salem-Keizer and Chemeketa have other programs allowing high school students to take college courses, including the district's Early College High School on the Chemeketa campus. Most of those programs offer high school and college credit simultaneously and require students to enroll for multiple years of high school.

Senior Launch instead focuses on seniors who have taken high school courses and completed graduation requirements, but want to get a head start on college. It also allows them to select from a wider variety of Chemeketa classes.

Each district high school invited students like Espinoza who were eligible to graduate early to apply to Senior Launch. High schools focused recruitment on first-generation and lower income students.

Chemeketa offered the seniors free reign of its catalog and extra help with enrollment and adjusting to the college workload.

“We did a lot of hand-holding, probably more so than we do with a traditionally admitted student but because a lot of the students were … first generation or low-income students we felt that’s what they needed at this point,” said James McNicholas, student recruitment manager at Chemeketa.

McNicholas sees the program as one pathway to boosting Chemeketa’s enrollment, which has declined for years alongside other community colleges and was hit especially hard following the shift to online classes during the pandemic.

Though some students will take their Chemeketa credits to four-year colleges or elsewhere, he expects others will stay at the college for a two-year degree and will be more successful for getting a head start.

“If you’re one of the Senior Launch students and you enroll in maybe one or two classes, you get a really good feel for the pace, the workload, a better understanding of what you need to do as a student to balance your life, to balance work and school,” he said.

Brayan Quevedo, 18, a senior at Sprague High School, is getting a head start on a computer science career through Senior Launch. He said the ability to take courses not offered at high school was a big selling point, as was the free tuition.

“It’s not just taking your classes at Chemeketa. it’s choosing your future,” Quevedo said. Unlike high school, where many courses are required, he said his Chemeketa classmates are usually in class because they want to be.

“Everyone there is really self-motivated,” he said.

Quevedo became interested in programming in sixth grade after ending up in a computer science elective. Typing practice bored him. But as soon as he began basic programming and saw how he could write code to make a computer display, “Hello, world,” on the screen, he was hooked.

At Chemeketa, he’s taking computer science and chemistry, where he can earn college credit without having to take an Advanced Placement test.

Quevedo’s parents grew up in a village in Mexico and only completed elementary school. His older siblings went to college but struggled making the transition, Quevedo said. That showed him the benefit of having some extra guidance when moving to college.

Jamie Ellis, a Sprague teacher who serves as the school’s Senior Launch coordinator, keeps Quevedo and more than 30 other participating students on track.

“Ms. Ellis, she tracks you down if you don’t tell her what’s going on every week,” he said.

Espinoza is taking business, writing and a class focused on skills to help her transition to a four-year university.

Her classmate Jasmin Albor is enrolled in American Sign Language, a class not offered at North, as well as college algebra.

Both said they’d recommend the program to other seniors so long as they’re prepared to work hard in their classes.

“It’s really, really helping me,” Albor said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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