The Running Start program started in Washington state in 1993 and it’s been going strong ever since. It’s been going so strong, in fact, that many of the early students who went through the program now have children who are entering Running Start themselves — including many who will attend Olympic College this fall.
Running Start allows qualified high school juniors and seniors to take college-level classes tuition-free. The program allows students to earn both high school and college credits, which may be simultaneously applied toward high school graduation and toward an associate degree, certificate or transfer credits.
Tana (Hauschel) Siler, 44, started attending Olympic College in 1993 as part of the first group of students to participate in the program. This fall, her 16-year-old daughter McKenna Siler will begin attending OC, also through Running Start.
“When I did it, there were probably only 20 or 30 kids doing Running Start at OC,” Tana says. “I look at the number of kids doing it today, and it’s mind-boggling.”
Tana says she saw Running Start as a way to become more independent and take her first steps into the “real world” and adulthood. She found herself intellectually stimulated by the classes she took; she particularly enjoyed her psychology and logic classes, she recalls.
Entering the program 26 years after her mom, McKenna’s motivations mirror those of her mother.
“I am looking for a challenge,” she says. “Having the opportunity to earn college credit and get some of my college education out of the way early was really attractive to me. I’m excited for the opportunities this will open up and for the ability to be more independent and start my life outside of high school.”
Although the decision to enroll in Running Start was easy, McKenna says the complexity of the application process surprised her. She credits OC’s Running Start office with helping her navigate the process, and recommends that students with questions reach out to them for help.
“I felt like I was on my own trying to figure out how to do everything, but having them available to answer all my questions has been really helpful,” she says.
Students start out by applying to OC and then fill out a separate application for Running Start, said Theresa Ramos, Ed.D., director of the Running Start program at OC. Students must have a minimum 2.5 GPA, but if they don’t meet that requirement, they can write an appeal letter. From there, students must meet with both high school and college counselors as they move through the process. Once students enter the program, they receive quarterly advising sessions as well.
“I feel like we’re cheerleaders and we want everybody to be successful,” Ramos said.
McKenna says she isn’t sure exactly where she’ll continue her education after OC, but she knows she wants to work in the medical field, most likely in nursing. She may continue on at OC and attend its nursing program or apply to a four-year school like the University of Washington.
Ben and Sarah Zacher, both 39, met at Shoreline Community College, which they began attending in 1996 through Running Start.
“I was homeschooled,” Sarah says. “I saw Running Start as an opportunity to save money on school and get a classroom experience before entering a four-year university.”
Ben was drawn to the program because he felt it was a more mature setting. “I didn’t like the high school environment," he says. “I was not one of the cliquey people. So I started the Running Start program and it worked out pretty well.”
Now, the Zachers’ 16-year-old son, William, is following in their footsteps. Thus far, William has been homeschooled. He’s already started a first Running Start class this summer, an online math course. This fall, he’s taking three classes at OC as a high school junior.
William said his parents talked up the program, and the benefits made sense. “The idea that I could shave off a couple years of college while finishing up high school really appealed to me,” he says.
Both Ben and Sarah say they could have used more guidance during their own time as Running Start students, and they intend to be there to help their son navigate the process.
“I think something we both learned in Running Start is that parents still need to be really involved,” Sarah says. Going through the program themselves has enabled them to give their son practical advice: “Sit in the front row. Get to know your professors. Let them see you. Ask questions. Use that office time.”
With their son still in high school, it’s important to strike the right balance between parent and school supervision, she says. “We need to be aware of what he’s doing and that he’s keeping up with things, and the professor also needs to know who he is. I think that’s kind of the recipe for success.”
William wants to graduate high school with both a high school diploma and an associate degree, then move on to a four-year college to pursue a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Although William hasn’t yet determined exactly what kind of criminal justice career he wants to pursue, he knows he wants to be a first responder.
Many students start out ambitious, and want to complete their AA through Running Start, Ramos said. But completing their high school education has to be the students’ first priority, she says.
“I always tell the students, number one, we want you to finish your high school diploma,” she says, noting that around 90 percent of students say they want to get their AA, but only about 20 percent actually do. “I want them to understand that they could be one of those 20 percent; they just need to keep going when things look tough. Talk to people. Let us know if you’re having trouble. We can help you with resources.”
The program expands high school students’ educational prospects, Ramos says.
“We like to point out that they get to see diverse perspectives that they wouldn’t normally see in high school,” she says, noting that students are sometimes surprised to see that many of the students are older than them. “I always tell them, you might have a military veteran sitting next to you who’s done a couple tours, or you might sit next to a truck driver who’s in retraining. It gives them the ability to have a more diverse experience.”