After Austin Obasohan visited Duplin Early College High School on the campus of James Sprunt Community College in Kenansville, N.C., he was inspired.
The academic expectations for students were high there, and nearly all students were graduating from high school—most with an associate degree. The then-new superintendent of the 9,375-student Duplin County schools said to himself: If this is working, why not offer it to all students?
“We want a unified commitment to give every child the same opportunity,” says Obasohan, who came on the job in July 2010. “We can no longer afford pockets of excellence. We want to make sure that every, every, every child in Duplin County experiences what early-college students are experiencing.
“That’s why we decided to scale up,” he says. “Because we think it would be an injustice to deprive any child.”
Determined to start children thinking about college as early as prekindergarten, Obasohan began to call for a districtwide early-college system.
With the model, students in all five district high schools have a chance to earn college credit. And, to prepare students for more-rigorous courses, elementary and middle schools plant the seeds of postsecondary aspiration and foster a college-going culture.
Now, Duplin County is the only school system in North Carolina and one of two in the nation to implement districtwide early college. (The other is the Hidalgo school district in Texas.)
The seamless education model was adopted by the Duplin County school board in 2011, a year after Obasohan became schools chief.
Meanwhile, the high school graduation rate in the county has risen, growing from 71 percent in 2009-10 to 80.7 percent in 2011-12, and some local educators trace that improvement to the expansion of the early-college model and other initiatives begun by Obasohan.
Located in the rural southeast part of the state, the district is made up of roughly equal percentages of white, Hispanic, and African-American students. About 70 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Among the county’s adults, 80 percent have no postsecondary credential.
A transplant from Nigeria, the 53-year-old Obasohan has a marketing degree from Sussex College of Technology in England and earned his doctorate in educational leadership from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. In his 30-year career in education, he has worked with public schools in Alabama, Virginia, and North Carolina.
When Dana Diesel Wallace first met Obasohan two years ago, she was struck by the clarity of his vision of preparing all students for success early. Wallace is the vice president for school and district support at North Carolina New Schools, in Raleigh, a public-private advocacy organization for innovation in education, and works with Duplin County on strategies to expand the early college and train teachers.
“They have done incredible outreach to every entity in their community, … to business, faith-based organizations. It really is growing a communitywide vision,” says Wallace. “I’m unaware of any other district that has taken as deep of a dive as Austin has taken his district.”
Obasohan started by listening. He formed advisory groups for teachers, parents, and students—each of which meets monthly. He says he heard “a yearning for innovation and change. I sensed a very bold cry for preparing our children for careers and college.”
Tarla Smith, the executive director of career/technical education and innovative programs for the district, says the superintendent analyzed the school system and brought everyone to the table to drive expectations.
Obasohan “has been a bridge-builder and advocate for opening doors for business involvement,” she says.
The push for postsecondary training means promoting four-year degrees, as well as associate degrees and occupational certificates.
In the school system, there are now five career academies in the high schools for students interested in agribusiness, computer information technology, health sciences, teaching, and leadership. Students can take college-level courses, with the format depending on the course. With some, a college professor teaches in the high school. Others are hybrid online courses, where the student goes to class on the college campus one day a week and works via computer the other four.
Bringing the early-college model to all schools has been a challenge, says Kevin Smith, the senior lead achievement coach for the district and the former principal of the first Duplin Early College High School.
Administrators from Duplin County visited Texas to look at the model the Hidalgo district created, but Smith says schools have to adapt to make the concept work in their own settings.
“There is not a cookie-cutter way of doing this,” he says.
Duplin County has embraced the North Carolina New Schools concept of student-centered learning, in which the goal is for “every student to read, write, think, and talk in every class, every day,” says Smith.
Before Duplin County can fully expand the early-college model to all of its high school students, it needs to work through some state legislative hurdles. It must get a waiver to go beyond the current limit of offering early-college classes to just 100 students per grade and get approval to offer the courses in the high schools, not just on college campuses.
Obasohan says he has garnered support on the issue from local lawmakers and is hopeful the full legislature will agree to expand the concept.
Having a shared vision from the beginning is very important, rather than to come in and say, ‘This is what I think is a great idea.’ … It wasn’t one person’s initiative. It was our initiative, as a district.
Smith says it’s been a major shift in thinking to push all students to rigorous pathways. Rather than overlook average students for honors classes, teachers now think about how to offer courses with supports.
“Educators have always worked hard, but the intensity has increased,” says Smith. “There is definitely a pressure to make sure we are offering every student what they need. The pressure is long overdue.”
The school system has worked closely with James Sprunt Community College for years, but the relationship has deepened under the current superintendent’s leadership, says Lawrence Rouse, the president of the college.
Additional adjunct faculty members have been hired to accommodate the increase in the number of high school students wanting to take the college’s courses. The college has also developed a more cohesive approach to course offerings, in which students follow a prescribed pathway based on their long-term goals, rather than having to take courses that seem irrelevant to them. As a result, Rouse says, passing rates are up.
Rouse agrees with the idea that students needed to be better prepared coming to his campus. Obasohan “came in with a very discerning eye to what’s happening in Duplin County, and he decided to act on that vision,” says Rouse. “We are working together to make sure our courses dovetail with what they are doing in high school.”
In the district’s five elementary schools and three K-8 schools, every grade level adopts a college and is encouraged each year to visit one campus.
Tanya Smith, the assistant principal at Rose Hill-Magnolia Elementary School, a district school in Rose Hill, credits Obasohan for motivating young children to think ahead to college.
“When we hear ‘college readiness,’ our mind focuses on the high school students,” she says. Obasohan’s “vision is that it takes preparation prior to high school. If we can start the conversation as early as pre-K, [students] have at least seven or eight years to be exposed to different colleges.”
What can an 8-year-old get from a campus visit? “To know that the future does exist,” says Obasohan.
“If you, too, can be on the college campus, then you can explore and learn more about college,” he says. “It’s building the connection.”
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week