A year ago, Paul McNabb was on the verge of flunking high school. He felt lost in the crowd of 1,300 students on the urban campus he was attending here. With no plans for going to college, he didn’t see the point in trying too hard.
This spring, though, his latest report card is hanging on the refrigerator at his home, showing near-perfect grades in his honors classes. The senior has also completed several community college courses and, after his scheduled graduation this week, he plans to enroll in more college classes and a firefighter-training program.
Mr. McNabb, 18, may always have been capable of such academic feats. But the turnaround began when he switched from a traditional high school to one of the small, college-based programs offered by the Guilford County, N.C., school system.
The results are ones that researchers and policymakers across the country are trying to foster through high school improvement efforts that have focused on smaller schools and more rigorous and relevant course content.
At the Early/Middle College at Guilford Technical Community College, Mr. McNabb has benefited, he says, from more personalized attention from teachers, more opportunities to learn by doing, and a chance to pursue his own interests through community college classes. He says it didn’t hurt, either, that classes at the school start at noon.
“I feel like they actually care about you here and work with you more on a one-to-one basis,” Mr. McNabb said recently. “The content is taught to you—you’re not forced to learn it on your own.”
Over the past five years, officials of the 67,000-student district here have opened a half-dozen similar programs on the campuses of local two- and four-year colleges—and will open two more in the fall—in a push to motivate underachieving teenagers to graduate and pursue further education.
The strategy is part of a menu of initiatives Guilford County has introduced to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students in its middle and high schools, where racial and ethnic diversity and poverty have been on the rise. As a result of such efforts, officials here say, the high school dropout rate has fallen from nearly 6 percent of students in grades 9-12 during the 1999-2000 school year to just over 3 percent for 2003-04. Last school year, 639 district students in grades 9-12 were identified as dropouts, more than 400 fewer than four years earlier.
“We had given up on them,” said Superintendent Terry B. Grier, who began the aggressive push to prevent dropouts when he arrived as schools chief five years ago. “But if you approach these kids with the right kind of help and the right environment, you can turn their lives around.”
That is just what has happened for hundreds of students who had already left school or were at risk of dropping out. With numerous absences, disciplinary infractions, family issues, emotional problems, or a simple lack of interest in school, the students had failed classes and fallen behind in course requirements.
At first glance, such students may be unlikely candidates for college-based programs. But officials here are convinced that a college campus holds an appeal for teenagers and pushes them to improve both their personal behavior and their academic performance.
“The mere fact of being on a college campus allows them to view themselves differently,” said Tony Wallington, the principal of the Early/Middle College, whose school, like ones with similar labels around the country, gives students a chance to earn postsecondary credits in a college setting while completing high school. “These kids in their heart of hearts don’t believe college is for them, … but we’re out to change that perception.”
Of course, educators here point out that such students generally would not succeed without a lot of help getting back on the academic track.
At the Early/Middle College, for example, teachers conduct home visits, meet regularly with students, and keep close watch on their progress. Students can take advantage of daily tutorials, make up school time on selected Saturdays and over the summer, or opt to attend a fifth year of high school.
As a result, nearly all the high-risk students graduate with a college-prep or technical diploma, a majority earn grade-level marks on the state’s end-of-course exams, and some leave with credit toward a college degree.
A good number of the students targeted by the district’s high school programs, while perhaps capable of succeeding academically, had already “dropped out emotionally,” said Lora Hodges, the principal of Greensboro Middle College, a high school for 110 juniors and seniors housed on the campus of Greensboro College, a private, four-year school enrolling some 1,300 students.
“Many students don’t fit in and don’t connect” to their regular high schools, Ms. Hodges said, and they express that “in painful terms.”
“The traditional high school is a great place for a majority of students,” she said, “but there is a population of students that needs to be engaged in other ways.”
As researchers and policymakers work toward making high school more productive and meaningful for American teenagers, the challenge of engaging students in rigorous coursework has emerged as a critical issue.
Helping to prevent students from dropping out requires a comprehensive approach, said Russell W. Rumberger, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“Many of these kids have problems beyond just the academics: They have family issues to deal with, peer issues—there’s a social dimension to their situation,” said Mr. Rumberger, who served on the Committee on Increasing High School Students’ Engagement and Motivation to Learn, sponsored by the National Research Council, an independent agency that advises the federal government. “If they are paying attention to kids and trying to help them with an array of services, they are probably going to engage them and keep them in school.”
The NRC committee concluded in its 2003 report that “student engagement and learning are fostered by a school climate characterized by an ethic of caring and supportive relationships; respect, fairness, and trust. …” (“Research Group Taps Director; Sets Agenda on Studies,” Dec. 10, 2003.)
It also pointed out, however, that a caring climate is not enough. “Equally important,” the report said, “is the focus on learning and high expectations for student achievement, or ‘academic press.’ ”
The Guilford County strategy embraces that “academic press,” while also incorporating flexibility and additional support services, and working to develop strong relationships between students and teachers.
The high school initiatives allow students who have fallen behind in their coursework to catch up and, in some cases, meet state graduation requirements, which are somewhat less rigorous than the district’s standards. While most of the students are placed in honors classes and encouraged to strive for a college-prep diploma, they can instead skip some of the more stringent coursework and earn a technical diploma.
In one of the programs, offered at Bennett College, many of the 100 high school students are juggling their academic duties with motherhood, or have moved out of their parents’ homes and are living on their own. Many of the students are several grades behind their peers and had dropped out of high school at least once already.
But with access to medical services, a social worker, and transportation for themselves and their children, many of the girls are headed toward graduation. On the campus of the private, historically black women-only college, the girls have role models in college students who persisted despite disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Everybody here wants to graduate, and I’m more determined to [do that] here,” said Alloren Davis-Adams, 17, a Middle College at Bennett senior who is expecting her first child in July. While the school has had more difficulty stemming dropouts than the other programs—48 girls out of about 100 dropped out during the first year of the program—it has helped dozens earn diplomas that had been nearly out of reach, according to Principal Elizabeth G. Bridges.
Nearby, the county has a boys-only program on the campus of the 10,000-student North Carolina A&T University, also a historically black institution.
When Principal Russell Harper opened the Middle College at NC A&T in 2003, it “had a reputation as a school for troublemakers or deviant kids,” he said. Mr. Harper quickly instituted strict rules for dress, behavior, and attendance.
“That whole first year, we dispelled that perception,” he said. While many of the students had been persistently absent at their former schools, Mr. Harper reports a 95 percent attendance rate among his 100 students.
Options for High Achievers
Guilford County’s high school options aren’t limited to struggling students.
Students across the district—which includes Greensboro and the surrounding suburbs—can earn a special Advanced Placement diploma for completing five AP courses and passing the exams. They can also choose from a handful of magnet schools, take courses at selected colleges, often with the district paying the tuition, or apply for the early- and middle-college programs.
For students just trying to meet the minimum graduation requirements, the district provides a vast support system, with counseling, mentoring, and regular checks on struggling students.
But instead of lowering expectations for those students, district officials have demanded more from them academically. Eighth graders, for example, must take pre-algebra or algebra classes. Once in high school, the students are required to take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT. The results from that test are used to direct more students into tougher courses.
Guilford County still has strides to make, Mr. Grier said, in further closing the achievement gap between minority students and their white peers, and in tackling the needs of the hundreds of students who drop out despite the options. And failure and suspension rates at several of the county’s traditional high schools increased last fall, the first time students were able to select the schools they wished to attend.
But for many students, the programs have been life-altering.
“This school gave me a second chance,” said T-Jay Foultz, a junior at the Middle College at North Carolina A&T who was expelled from a traditional high school in the district. “I don’t know where I’d be without this school, probably locked up somewhere. … But now I have more chances to learn than I knew [existed].”