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Riverland, SMEC offer alternative learning students new program to earn college credit for certificate programs

ADAMS—Before the sun rises, Angeli Padilla is already dressed and ready for her first set of classes to become a certified nursing assistant.

The 17-year-old Adams teen travels to LeRoy-Ostrander High School, where her day starts at 7 a.m. It was hard to believe that Padilla would be attending classes a couple months ago, but she finds herself motivated and excited to go to class. She even started reading her textbooks two weeks before classes even started and gets up at 5 a.m. to prepare for the day.

For Padilla, this was a stark contrast to how she was before: unmotivated, uninspired and unwilling to study for exams and tests in subjects she didn’t genuinely have an interest.

Yet, when the Southern Minnesota Education Consortium (SMEC) began offering the Early/Middle College Program this year for its Alternative Learning Center (ALC) students, in partnership with Riverland Community College, the possibility of stepping toward her dream of becoming a nursing assistant suddenly became a tangible goal.

“If I didn’t come to the ALC, I couldn’t become a certified nursing assistant,” she said. “I always wanted to look into healthcare and learning about medical terms. I always played doctor when I was a kid and I have a lot of younger children in my family. I hope to eventually become an OBGYN someday.”

Students in the seven districts that are members of SMEC—Southland, LeRoy-Ostrander, Lyle, Grand Meadow, Kingsland, Alden-Conger and Glenville-Emmons — attend the ALC for classes and have the opportunity to earn high school credits, while at the same time earn credits toward their certificate program from Riverland. Since its start three weeks ago, SMEC has only two students enrolled in the Early/Middle College Program. Padilla, who is a Southland student, is taking the program along with another from LeRoy-Ostrander who’s currently taking the firefighter training program.

Two years ago, SMEC partnered with Riverland to apply for the Early/Middle College Program to be offered to ALC students. To ensure that the program would be offered to students, SMEC and Riverland needed to receive approval by the Minnesota Department of Education, according to ALC Coordinator Kathy Piller. Once approved, then the two entities must re-apply to renew their license through the MDE after a certain number of years.

“Although this program has been around for quite some time, this is the first time that the ALC is offering Early/Middle College Program for its students,” Piller said. “It’s one of the ways we can motivate our students to value their education and motivate them for the future.”

The program was crucial to developing a sense of purpose in ALC students, said Dan Armagost, executive director of SMEC. Within the southeast Minnesota area, Riverland is the only post-secondary institution that is approved by MDE to offer this program for SMEC’s ALC students.

Although it sounds similar at first mention, the Early/Middle College Program is different than the post-secondary education option for high school students earning college credits while taking college-level courses in high school.

These programs are partnerships between state-approved alternative programs, and eligible post-secondary institutions designed to serve and support students in the academic middle where many are from low-income backgrounds, students of color, first generation and English Learners.

“By offering this program, we’re giving our students an opportunity that they may not otherwise have been able to get,” Piller said. “They have definitely taken advantage of this program, and they’re so dedicated. It’s just great to see this happening for them.”

Getting SMEC Early/Middle College Program wasn’t just a small endeavor. All participating districts and Riverland must agree to work together in order to get their application approved by MDE, which made obtaining the program a complete team effort.

“Our goal was to have students gain access to college certification programs and to have a clear path to get that certificate after graduation by having them meet less barriers that could get in the way,” Armagost said. “Once we clear the way to make it as accessible as possible, the students can find their path into the workforce.”

However, students still must take the Accuplacer Placement Test in order to identify areas of strengths and weaknesses in order to apply for the Early/Middle College Program. SMEC’s alternative education is designed for at-risk students of educational failure. Students at the ALC have smaller class sizes and attend alternative learning programs that are year-round and may be offered during the day and after school. Staff works with students by doing hands-on and individualized educational focuses, as well as building their emotional and social needs.

There’s also a big focus on vocational and career skills, including independent study options through community, county and state partnerships which provide additional support and resources.

Administrators hoped that by introducing students to the Early/Middle College Program, SMEC could expand its educational mission in providing opportunities for the districts it serves.

“It’s only one piece of the puzzle,” Armagost said. “The parents are very excited, and students are also inspired to look for a job after graduation, and to explore their passions. This is only a part of SMEC’s overall vision as a whole, and providing more access to students. It feels good to have reached this achievement and to start off the race for SMEC fulfilling its goals.”

During the school day, ALC students who are enrolled in the program attend classes wherever the partnering institution has the certificate program the students are working toward. Some may be learning at Riverland, or at the fire station for hands-on experiences.

Eventually, the hope was that once the new SMEC facility opens and students and staff move into the building after Christmas break, programs can be hosted through the new building and provide easier access for families.

Angeli Padilla, 17, and of Adams, studies for her certified nursing assistant program through Riverland Community College. Hannah Yang/hannah.yang@austindailyherald.com

Seeing how students have already begun changing their demeanor in working toward a new career goal and aspirations, Armagost was ecstatic at this opportunity being available for SMEC’s alternative learning students.

“They’re excited and found purpose,” he said. “The students are really dedicated and driven, and this program allows them to see the results of their hard work. I love seeing their excitement and their drive to stay committed to achieve their dreams.”

From this opportunity, Padilla has the chance to become the first person in her family to graduate from school. As the older sister to her siblings, she wanted to show them that by pursuing an opportunity like the Early/Middle College Program, they could also be successful, and Padilla wanted to prove to her mother that she could also graduate from school.

The future right now is that Padilla is working toward finishing the Early/Middle College Program, head to Riverland for her general education classes and then eventually transfer to Winona State University to obtain her bachelor’s degree.

Beyond that, she may be working on a few things,  however, she knows for certain that she found her life’s passion and is determined to get there.

She just needed a little encouragement and opportunity first.

“It’s taking another step where you want to end up,” Padilla said. “If you’re thinking about it, just take a shot at it and get the experience and make some good memories. I definitely found my passion, and you’ll never know what you like or don’t like if you don’t try.”