Students’ odds of success are high if they are enrolled at an early-college program in Guilford County, N.C.
Four of the schools, which allow students to earn college credits while still in high school, boasted 100 percent graduation rates this past school year, and another three had rates higher than 90 percent.
It’s been more than a decade since the 73,500-student district opened its first early-college high school, giving it one of the longer track records for the model. The idea of combining secondary and postsecondary coursework was largely untested at that time, and the state’s Learn and Earn early-college initiative was still several years away. But the risk appears to have paid off.
“We have as many options in our school district as we can offer,” said Terry W. Worrell, the central region superintendent in the Guilford district. “We feel that one size does not fit all of our students.”
Once they take college classes, students realize they have the skill set and work ethic to make it, said Ms. Worrell. “No one is holding them back,” she added. “They start to know they are smart.”
Nationally, so-called early colleges—and similarly designed schools called middle colleges—have taken off as a strategy to address the dropout crisis and ensure more students are on the path to college and careers. At early colleges, students can often earn an associate degree alongside a high school diploma. Middle college is a generic term for schools located on college campuses where students have the opportunity to take both secondary and postsecondary courses. Guilford has adopted variations of the models often reflected in the names of each school.
There are 270 early colleges as part of the Jobs For the Future Early College Initiative and at least 100 others outside the network, estimates Joel Vargas, a vice president at JFF, a Boston-based nonprofit. There are also 41 early-college schools from 17 states in the Middle College National Consortium.
Growth and Variety
With a ninth early-college school opening this fall in Guilford County—this one focused on science, technology, engineering, and math subjects—the district now has the largest concentration of early-college programs in the state, which leads the nation with 74 of them. Guilford has increased high school completion rates overall, from 74 percent in 2006 to 84.5 percent this year. The graduation rate in 2011 for all high schools in North Carolina was 77.9 percent and 91.2 percent for the early-college models, according to the North Carolina New Schools Project, a public-private venture, which supports early-college policy and strategy.
“It’s an opportunity for students to see tomorrow today … and see what their future can be,” Superintendent Maurice Green said of the model.
Administrators acknowledge the journey hasn’t been without some bumps and bruises along the way. It’s taken negotiation to iron out policies for high school students studying on college campuses. And when community members raised concerns that the early colleges were taking the cream of the crop from traditional high schools, business leaders stepped in to advocate the alternative pathways.
As more of the early college programs dot the American landscape, the expansion and lessons learned in the Guilford district could provide insights to educators considering the model. Overall, the approach is promising, advocates say. JFF early-college students, the majority of whom are low-income and students of color, graduate at a higher rate—93 percent—compared with 76 percent for other students in their school districts.
Some early colleges in Guilford County serve high-achieving students, while others are a second chance for those who have not connected with traditional schools.
The first school to open in the district was the Early College at Guilford, located on the campus of the four-year private Guilford College campus, in 2002. The accelerated program condenses four years of high school coursework, taught by public school teachers, into the 9th and 10th grades. Then as juniors and seniors, the students take a total of 60 college credits in classes taught by professors on campus. “They have a history of excellent performance and they are motivated,” Principal Bobby Hayes said of her students. There are about 240 applications for every 50 spots that open up each year at the 200-student school.
Since 2007, the school has had a 100 percent graduation rate, compared with 95.5 percent in its first graduating class of 2006.
The district’s middle colleges typically work with 11th and 12th graders who are considered dropout risks and need a fresh start. At the Greensboro College Middle College, Principal Jamie King works to build a family environment and engage students.
“You can’t just fade away here and hide at the back of the classroom,” said Mr. King. “Classes are small, and you have to be part of it.”
There is also an all-girl Early/Middle College at Bennett serving 9th through 12th grades, and the Early/Middle College at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University with an all-male population for grades 9-12, both on historically black college campuses.
‘Power of Place’
Call it the “power of place” that makes this model work, said the JFF’s Mr. Vargas.
“The idea is to change a student’s conception of what it means to be a college student by having them practice the behaviors of college students and putting them in college classes—with support,” he said. “There is something about the prospect of accelerating to who you want to be that is motivating for students.”
The financial incentive—up to two years of college credits for free—can’t be overlooked as a motivator, either, Mr. Vargas added.
The small atmosphere is critical, students and administrators say. At the middle college at Greensboro, where there are 20 students for every teacher, the first three days of school are spent outside the classroom doing team building and outdoor activities.
At Greensboro, teachers voluntarily come in on Saturdays and even arrange online remediation to find various ways to get a student to participate, said Mr. King, the principal. “There is no, ‘I got you’ by a teacher. It’s, ‘What can we do ?’ to help the kid, to get the student to walk across the stage,” he said of teachers’ attitudes.
Rising senior Scottie Saunders at the early/middle college at North Carolina A&T says the teachers are the driving force at the school, and he could sense that when he first arrived on campus. “I could tell the teachers were serious,” he said. “They wanted us to excel in the future. … They tend to push us a lot harder than in middle school.”
It helps, too, he said, that classes allow more attention for each student.
Describing himself as “100 percent ready” for college, Mr. Saunders said, “the college classes have played a major part. They have warmed us up to what it’s going to be about.”
Principal Eric Hines, of North Carolina A&T’s middle college, says the teachers and staff work to foster a nurturing atmosphere and find creative ways to broaden the experiences of the 130 boys in the school, many of whom come in as low performers. Students travel with their Spanish class to Costa Rica, and honor roll students are rewarded with trips to professional basketball games, whitewater rafting, or Japanese restaurants.
“Those are things they never have gotten to do,” said Mr. Hines, who pays for the special events with outside grants. Graduation rates at the school have increased from 60 percent in 2008 when Mr. Hines arrived, to 100 percent.
At Bennett, successful women in the community are brought in to tell their stories and to reinforce the college-going message, said Principal Esther Coble, who has seen completion rates rise during her tenure, from 73 percent in 2005 to 100 percent today.
In the past decade, Guilford County has learned it takes more than putting high school students on a college campus for them to excel.
Mr. Hines realized that traditional instruction wasn’t working for those in the program. “Students don’t want to sit for 90 minutes. They don’t do well with long lectures,” he said.
High school teachers now break up lessons into 20-minute intervals. They allow lots of movement in class, and students do presentations often and work with technology. Also, no uniforms, the better to blend in on a college campus, Mr. Hines said.
Guilford officials also discovered the need to work through different policies and procedures related to having their students on college campuses.
“We always have to be mindful we are guests on the university’s campus,” said Ms. Worrell, one of Guilford’s regional superintendents. The high school students, for example, are prohibited from the college dorms. From the beginning, the district had informal advisory teams, and campus liaisons help with communication. About three years ago, it formalized the structures.
Future for Model
The new STEM Early College will open this month on the campus of North Carolina A&T with three tracks: renewable energy, biomedicine, and engineering. Nearly 160 students applied for the 50 available spots.
“We want to make sure the workforce in the area is ready to make the transition from manufacturing to a STEM-based economy,” said Principal Stacey Alston. “In Guilford County, having these different types of schools allows students to find their special spot where they can soar.”
Mr. Green, Guilford’s superintendent, said the county will consider opening more of the schools as well. “I can imagine that having these types of opportunities, as well as other innovative schools, will be on our ledger and in our strategic plan going forward,” he said.
Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education, at www.luminafoundation.com.
A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as N.C. Early-College Model Brings Lessons, Results