The students bent intently over their desktop computers at East Surry High School on a recent afternoon weren’t all working on the same lesson, or in the same course—or even as part of the same school.
Senior Ben Chilton sat in a corner, reading for an online political science class at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, while a handful of other students were earning credits at East Carolina University in a classroom in an online community in which students and teachers are represented by avatars. And another senior, Timothy Crotts, highlighted passages from an old-fashioned textbook in a personal-finance class, also for an ECU course.
High school students earning college credit may sound like nothing new. But over the past few years, students in East Surry and 17 other rural high schools in the Tarheel State have been hitting the accelerator on dual enrollment, thanks to help from, a nonprofit organization, and a $15 million grant from the federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, fund.
Along the way, these students have helped Breakthrough Learning get to the bottom of the research question its grant was designed in part to answer: Can Breakthrough Learning use the strategies that have worked at “early college” high schools—typically small schools located on the campus of a community college or another postsecondary institution—and bring them to a more traditional high school setting?
The grant doesn’t wind down until December, but the approach shows promise, according to an interim report by the SERVE center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a research and evaluation organization. Schools that began the program in the first year of the five-year grant—the 2012-13 school year—saw higher percentages of students taking college-credit-bearing courses by the end of 11th grade.
What’s more, roughly 89 percent of students in early-college high schools enrolled in some type of college, either two-year or four-year, compared with nearly 74 percent of similar students, according to a separate, multi-year study of early college high schools in the Tarheel State, also led by the SERVE Center.
Such results earned Breakthrough Learning further federal confidence—and funding: a $20 million “scale up” grant, also through the i3 program, to help the organization grow. Breakthrough Learning is the first program nationally to progress from the “validation” stage, which is for programs that have moderate evidence to back up their approaches, to the scale-up level, which is for proven projects that are ready to go big.
The funds will enable the nonprofit, which was started in 2003, to extend its reach in North Carolina and also to bring the program to Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Those states are doing a mix of early-college and comprehensive high school approaches.
And, as it does in North Carolina, Breakthrough Learning will provide outside coaches to focus staff members on its six “design principles,” which are aimed at helping schools improve teaching and better tailor instruction to individual students. It also helps train “college liaisons,” who facilitate much of the dual-enrollment work.
“Being awarded this kind of grant makes me feel like there are others in Washington who think that education is a pursuit worth experimenting [on],” said Laurie Baker, the senior director of New Schools Rural Initiative. “It implies this: ‘We believe in you, go forth and be the pioneer. And we take that really, really seriously.’ ”
The i3 program was created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and aimed at helping to investigate and expand promising district-level practices. Its successor, the Education Innovation and Research program, was enshrined in the Every Student Succeeds Act, the latest update of the main federal K-12 law.
Districts in the four states that signed on to participate in Breakthrough Learning’s scale-up grant are just beginning their work. Mississippi opened its first early-college high school in partnership with Breakthrough Learning this school year. The Golden Triangle Early College High School got nearly 120 applicants for the first 9th grade cohort—twice as many as the school had space for.
Starting a school—even on the campus of a community college that’s eager to partner—isn’t easy. But visits to successful sites in North Carolina have helped, said Jill Savely, the director of the school.
Most of the schools she and her team toured “have been in operation for eight, 10, 12 years,” she said. “They have their own identity, they’ve already made their mistakes. They’ve shared with us those challenges. We haven’t really had to start from scratch.”
Meanwhile, some communities, including Surry County, are delving deeper into the “career development” side of the college- and career-ready equation.
The end game: deeper connections with local businesses that can provide both internships for students and “externships” for educators to help them figure out how to make classwork relevant to the working world. Ideally, Baker says, each school participating in the program would have at least one strong partnership with a postsecondary institution or business.
Work-based learning can be a way to reach a set of students in Surry County who might not understand how academics can prepare them for the working world, said Jill Y. Reinhardt, the assistant superintendent.
In a perfect world, some educators in Surry County would love to see high school seniors be able to spend up to three days a week gaining real-world experience and the other two in the classroom, taking college coursework.
“I have high hopes for the internships. The students want it,” said Celia Hodges, the principal of Central Surry High School, which joined the initiative with the scale-up grant. “The next step is the community buying into our students.”
But barriers exist in remote Surry County which includes Mt. Airy, the small, idyllic North Carolina community that served as the model for the town in Andy Griffith’s television comedies.
Right now, so-called “work-based learning” opportunities are offered in the district, but they are scattershot, and the internships typically don’t offer pay. Transportation across the county can be a serious barrier. What’s more, parents don’t always understand the purpose of the experience—or at times, even the college coursework—making it more difficult for students to buy in.
But a lot is at stake for communities like Surry County as they try to navigate those barriers. Many in Surry County once found employment in the now-faded textile industry, but a group of educators, local business leaders, and others who met recently to think through the grant acknowledged that it’s not coming back.
It will be up to the school district to help train a future generation of workers who can fill jobs and maybe even bring new industries and business to this isolated community, they said.
“Because [the] rural [context] has its own unique set of challenges, we are really trying to position these districts and schools as the agents of change within their communities,” Baker said.
Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2016 edition of Education Week as Grant Boosts ‘Early College’ High School Effort