BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — When students in a college-level sociology class at Skyview High were tasked with creating their own school, they had to account for considerations like school-year schedules, class offerings and staff salary structures.

Those students could create focused schools that zeroed in on one topic. School officials in Billings don't.

Everyone agrees that giving high school students more opportunities to earn college credits — and do so on the cheap — is a good thing. But how to do that is part of a larger puzzle for school officials, reported the Billings Gazette (http://bit.ly/2idNvmo).

Teachers for dual credit courses like sociology class need specific certifications. Teachers for Advanced Placement courses need to meet separate parameters. Student interest needs to be high enough to fill classes, which need to be sandwiched into the school day alongside required courses and other electives.

It took several years to get the Skyview sociology class set up. High school teachers who teach dual credit courses need to have at least a master's degree and nine graduate-level credits in their subject area. However, Montana State University Billings wanted a sociology teacher that had a subject-area master's degree, not an education-specific masters.

Coul Hill, the Skyview sociology teacher, already had a master's in educational leadership. School District 2 ended up partnering with Great Falls College, which was fine with the nine-credit certification. Hill is taking sociology courses online through Arizona State University.

"Teaching a college course has been great," Hill said. "These kids are so motivated."

Finding teachers who are certified to teach courses, and working out relationships between universities and high schools, are perhaps the biggest hurdles to expansion. While taking graduate-level classes can move teachers up the SD2 salary scale, there aren't specific incentives tied to teacher dual credit.

"A lot of the time, educators don't receive master's degrees in specific curriculum content," said SD2 administrator Brenda Koch, who helped set up the sociology class. "The high school teachers are not looking to become college professors."

Koch did say she's seen a growing willingness among universities to work with high schools on certification options.

The sociology class was planned before the announcement of a fee-waiver program with MSUB and City College that saved students a $51.50 per-credit fee for dual enrollment classes, which are typically three credits each.

MSUB also received a grant to help teachers meet the 9-credit requirement in writing, art and political science at a reduced cost. The university has targeted 16 rural districts that have teachers with education-related master's degrees and hopes to have 35 teachers signed up for summer courses, said Cindy Bell, who coordinates the grant.

Columbus and Hardin will add college-level writing courses through MSUB this spring, with teachers who already met university certifications.

Advanced Placement

At Central High, a private school also included in the fee-waiver program, school officials are targeting dual enrollment for growth instead of AP classes.

In AP classes, students are taught college-level coursework from a nationwide curriculum. They then take a standardized test at the end of the year and can earn widely transferable college credit. But the tests carry a higher risk than a yearlong course — if students bomb the test, they get no college credit.

For students targeting highly selective out-of-state colleges, an AP course is worth it to make sure credits transfer. But for students bound for Montana colleges, as most Billings high schoolers planning on attending college are, dual credit works just as well.

The transferable credit, combined with the low cost, is "very concrete to them and their parents," said Central college counselor Bob Keenum. Creating more college credit options takes on added significance at Central, where the majority of students go on to a 4-year school.

Many Dual Credit courses aren't aimed at those students. At the Career Center, students can take courses like interior design that contribute more toward a two-year degree. It's students who are on the fence about taking a college-level class that benefit most from the fee-waiver, officials said.

Harold Olson, the dual credit coordinator at MSUB, said that students have taken 915 credits worth of dual credit classes this year. Waiving the $51.50 per-credit fee, that's saved students almost $50,000, collectively.

It's unclear whether or not a program that waives a per-credit fee for students in coursers offered at MSUB or City College will continue next year. Officials in other districts around the state have called for expanding dual credit financial aid.

Schools are preparing for dual credit expansion regardless; the Skyview sociology class is offered through Great Falls College and didn't qualify for the fee waiver, but still proved popular.

"I do think the sociology class is a good indicator that this is something that students want, that parents want," Koch said.

___

Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com