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Evolution of early-college high schools

Districts rapidly add programs to give all learners jump on higher ed
Students at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Cato Middle College High School begin earning college credit in their junior year and can graduate from a 13th grade with an associate’s degree or professional certification.
Students at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Cato Middle College High School begin earning college credit in their junior year and can graduate from a 13th grade with an associate’s degree or professional certification.

Ninth graders in North Carolina take all their classes on the campus of a major state university. Early-college high school students in Connecticut can gain an inside track to one of the world’s largest tech companies. Online and blended learners in Michigan can spend a fifth year in high school and graduate with an associate’s degree.

Aside from providing a money-saving jump-start on college, the rapid spread of early-college high school programs is spurring closer collaboration between K12 and higher ed around preparing students for the rigors of college life and coursework.

“This definitely provides a really good opportunity for K12 and college partners to be more explicit about their shared expectations for students,” says Joel Vargas, vice president of Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that, among other initiatives, helps districts design early-college programs. “They have figured out a way to share responsibility for providing students an opportunity to move seamlessly into and through secondary education.”

The guiding concept behind these programs is that students can start earning college credit for free, or at very low cost, in smaller, more supportive environments. But the structure of the programs, where students take classes, the corporate partners, and the number of credits offered vary from state to state.

Full STEM ahead

Texas and North Carolina are among the states with the most extensive early college programs that are now expanding rapidly throughout the country. And many of the nation’s early-college high schools hold their classes on the campuses of two-year colleges.

For example, high school students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district’s early engineering college, which opened in August with 100 freshmen, spend all their time among the 27,000 students at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Charlotte Engineering Early College students will spend ninth and 10th grade in the program’s dedicated facility, working through a courseload that’s heavy on math and science—and light on art and similar electives—to complete their high school requirements.

They will then take full-blown college classes, and can earn up to 60 transferable college credits by the time they complete a fifth year of high school. Students will start their college coursework with general education requirements but can move on to more advanced classes with the goal of moving right into a college of engineering, says Will Leach, principal of the Charlotte Engineering Early College.

Students have no tuition or fees, and don’t have to pay for textbooks, Leach adds. And even though they take all their classes at the university, they can still play on sports teams or be involved in other extracurricular activities at what would have been their home high schools.

The early college will add 100 freshmen over each of the next four years to reach its full capacity. The program admits students through an open lottery, but has attracted those who may not have otherwise been able to attend college, Leach says.

“I think this is a growing movement,” he says of early colleges nationwide. “Providing access to students who would normally not be able to access college—and us paying for it—we’ve got to take that step.”

Leach’s school is not the only college-credit program that is expanding the district. Charlotte-Mecklenburg has for several years operated “middle-college” high school programs in which juniors and seniors earn college credit through an extra, 13th grade of high school. The programs have been so popular that last fall the district opened Levine Middle College High School on a campus of Central Piedmont Community College, and plans to add another program next school year.

“I think we’re on the verge of really exploding in these programs,” says Joey Burch, the Levine principal who previously ran one of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s other middle-college programs. “Before, we had to recruit heavily to reach our capacity. That hard work is paying off now.”

Computer pathways

Mobile programming and software engineering are the two associate’s degrees that students can pursue at Norwalk High School in Connecticut. At the just-launched Norwalk Early College Academy in Connecticut, high school students can graduate in as little as four (or as many as six) years—without paying any tuition.

The program—which began this fall with its first class of 87 ninth graders—is the first in Connecticut to be based on the IBM Pathways in Technology Early College High School. The model, also known as P-Tech, has been implemented in a handful of school districts in New York state and Chicago.

The academy is the 21st century version of vocational classes—like shop—that have been mostly eliminated from K12 education, says Norwalk High School Principal Reginald Roberts.

“This gives you a guaranteed skill set—something like this gives you an upper hand,” Roberts says.

In the first years of the program, which runs on a lottery admissions system, students take double periods of English and math to get ahead on their high school credits. They are also required to take after-school classes three days a week.

And in courses taught by instructors from nearby Norwalk Community College, students can start earning college credit in their sophomore year. Students are dual-enrolled in the high school and community college, though they don’t take classes at the college until their junior years.

The program has a “workplace learning” component in which students are taught interpersonal communication, collaboration and public speaking skills that a company such as IBM requires of its employees. The students also communicate regularly (typically by email) with a volunteer mentor from IBM who can keep students motivated and give them insights into how to get a job at a major technology company. Students also get a paid internship with IBM after their junior year.

When they finish the program, they can interview for an entry-level position with IBM or transfer to a four-year college.

The four- to six-year schedule allows students to finish quickly or take more time if they want to work, play on athletic teams or participate in other extracurricular activities. A key to the program is exposing students to the rigors of college courses while they are still in a small, supportive high school environment, says Karen Amaker, the academy’s director.

“They’re gaining the understanding they can succeed in college,” Amaker says. “They’re buying into the idea that college is a part of their future.”

And two other Connecticut school districts, those in New London and Windham, will launch P-Tech programs next fall.

Online flexibility

The nearly 100 students in the Oxford Community Schools’ early college program in Michigan can earn high school and college credits in a classroom, online or through a mix of both. The 5,500-student district about an hour north of Detroit has partnered with Macomb Community College and the private Rochester College.

Now in its fourth year, the program, which requires a fifth year of high school, has about 100 students. Because Michigan is a school-choice state, students who live as far as two hours away have enrolled in Oxford’s early-college program. The online classes give students flexibility to work and to take a mix of college and high school courses, says Mark Suckley, a guidance counselor for the early-college program.

“When developing the program, we wanted to be able tap into students from the entire Detroit metro area, not just ones close to Oxford,” Suckley says. “The students who come to us are self-driven, so online has pushed them even more so to be individual learners.”

Students must apply to get into the program, and they are admitted if they can demonstrate college-level writing ability. College courses are taught by college instructors on the Oxford Virtual Academy’s physical campus. In the final year, students also work on community service projects, such as organizing a 5K race to benefit a foster care facility or raising money to restore a historic home.

Students can earn an associate’s degree or up to 60 college credits to transfer to a four-year institution. Students who choose to attend Rochester College are eligible for a $7,500 scholarship on top of any merit aid they might receive.

Middle and early colleges are expanding rapidly in Michigan. In 2005, the state had only two dedicated middle-college high schools. Now it has 19, says Chery Wagonlander, director of the Michigan Early/Middle College Association.

“It is spreading exponentially in our state and across the nation,” Wagonlander says. “It has become an equity and access issue—no matter where students are located, we can find a way to have all students receive true college readiness.”

Taste of college

A close working relationship between Newport News Public Schools and Thomas Nelson Community College is an essential element of the Virginia community’s early-college program.

Newport News students who have completed their high school requirements in the first semester of their senior year can spend the second semester earning college credits at the community college.

A counselor employed by the school district is stationed at the college to check students in when they arrive at the campus for classes. The counselor provides general guidance about the college experience and also helps students if they are struggling with a class, says Susan Tilley, the district’s executive director of secondary school leadership.

“We think it makes a big difference to have that layer of support—compared to next year when the students will have nothing,” Tilley says.

Students in the program begin taking the college’s introductory English composition course at the beginning of senior year at their high school. The class is taught by high school teachers who are credentialed by the college.

Students can earn up to 19 semester hours of college credit through the program. The district pays for all textbooks and half the tuition.

The program was so popular during its pilot year at Heritage High School in 2011-12 that now all of the district’s high schools offer it. The program has served 175 students and an additional 62 have enrolled this year.

“Four-year colleges prefer students with early-college experience—they’ve already adjusted to the independence and free time,” Tilley says.

“They prefer kids who have an on-campus experience compared to the kid who takes college credits in a traditional high school building.”

Matt Zalaznick in senior editor.