Sometimes it seems like the world of education is perpetually under siege -- high dropout rates, overcrowded classrooms, sinking test scores -- it is easy to lose sight of some of the really good things that are happening. Take the early-college experiment in Guilford County, North Carolina. Faced with high dropout rates, educators in Guilford County realized that the traditional high school model was failing a growing number of students, and it was time to rethink high school curriculum with a focus on 21st century needs.
In 2002, the Early College at Guilford was launched -- a partnership between a public high school and private Guilford College. The idea was to condense a four year high school curriculum into the 9th and 10th grades, then enroll students in college courses on the Guilford campus for their junior and senior years. At the end of the program, students would graduate with a high school diploma and 60 college credits. It was an ambitious plan, with a significant risk factor -- but nothing ventured, nothing gained. The results? The first class to complete the four year program had a 95.5% graduation rate, but since then 100% of the enrolled students have graduated.
“They have a history of excellent performance and they are motivated,” says Principal Bobby Hayes of her students, noting that there are approximately 240 applications for every 50 spots in the entering 9th grade class.
In the past ten years, Guilford County has opened 8 early-college programs. The schools serve a wide range of students -- from those who are at the top end of the academic achievement scale, to those who are the most at risk. A ninth school is opening this fall: the new STEM Early College, housed on the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University campus. Nearly 160 students vied for 50 places in the first freshman class. After completing their high school curriculum, students will be able to choose from three academic tracks: renewable energy, biomedicine, and engineering
“We want to make sure the workforce in the area is ready to make the transition from manufacturing to a STEM-based economy,” says the principal. “In Guilford County, having these different types of schools allows students to find their special spot where they can soar.”
North Carolina leads the nation in early-college programs and Guilford County has the highest concentration of these schools. These programs have helped boost the over-all high school graduation rate from 74% in 2006, to almost 85% in 2012 -- and the completion rate for all early college participants is over 91% and climbing.
Of course, there are hurdles. Integrating high school students into the culture of each participating campus presents challenges. Teachers and school administrators work to build a ‘team’ atmosphere, and campus mentors are also deployed to help students make a successful transition into the demands of college courses. But so far, the early-college model seems to be working, and the concept is gaining traction in national education circles. Mayor Mike Bloomberg recently announced a pilot early-college program will open in New York City, and Chicago is also on-board.
“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,” says on North Carolina educator. “There is something about the prospect of accelerating to who you want to be that is motivating for students.”