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High School University

A North Carolina superintendent has teamed up with the local business community to draw better jobs to the area. But will “early college” be the answer?

By Ann Doss Helms | null , null
Students at Guilford County Schools’ highly selective  Early College can earn up to two years of college credit. <br />
Students at Guilford County Schools’ highly selective  Early College can earn up to two years of college credit.

Soon after Terry Grier started work as superintendent of Guilford County (NC) Schools in 2000, two of Greensboro’s civic leaders summoned him to a meeting.

The business community had commissioned a study of economic conditions in the central North Carolina county, where jobs in furniture and textile manufacturing had been disappearing for years. The study pegged weak public education as the No. 1 barrier to attracting better jobs to the area. Grier couldn’t argue.

“Well, what are you going to do about it?” he recalls one of the executives asking.

“What do you two plan to do to help me?” he replied. Thus was born a partnership between local business leaders and Grier to turn Guilford County’s high schools into a training ground for the country’s most competitive workers. The plan is twofold: First, make sure the highest achieving students have access to college-level courses in high school and earn college credit. Second, create a safety net that will prevent at-risk students from falling through the cracks and instead motivate them to stay in school by gearing their education toward real-life job possibilities.

THE IDEA, PART I: Send top students to college early
Two years after that initial meeting, Guilford opened the Early College for students selected by a competitive admissions process. This early college high school allows academic stars to race through required classes and earn up to two years of credit tuition-free at a local private college. Ninth-grade students take honors classes, and tenth graders take Advanced Placement courses before moving on to Guilford College for their junior and senior years.

The Early College at Guilford challenges students in ways local high schools cannot. Last spring, Early College high school students mingled with college students and staff on lunch break. A 14-year-old freshman said she wanted to attend the Early College because all her other schools bored her.

A senior talked about taking college German then joining classmates at Starbucks for after-class practice. Another senior, accepted to study physics and math at Cal Tech, dismissed her neighborhood high school as an option. “I’m taking quantum physics. I know I wouldn’t have been able to take that anywhere else,” she said.

THE IDEA, PART II: Send the struggling to college early
Providing opportunities for high-achieving students is one way to boost academic success, but Guilford County also focuses on students who struggle in a traditional learning environment. Six small “middle colleges” target struggling students—sometimes they’re the usual at-risk kids who live in impoverished neighborhoods, but just as often they’re smart kids who don’t fit into high school social culture—by putting them in smaller high school settings associated with a local community or technical college.

Small classes, personal attention, the allure of a college campus, and the chance to earn credit without paying tuition are all keys to engaging kids who tune out traditional schools.

In order to attend, students must convince an admissions team that they’re willing to do the work and
follow the rules. Anyone who fights or disrupts class is kicked out of Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) Middle College, for instance. “One strike and you’re out,” says Don Cameron, president of GTCC, noting that students have embraced the calmer environment, urging administrators to reject applications from classmates known as troublemakers.

Guilford’s small high schools generate waiting lists and have become a point of local pride. Four of Guilford’s large high schools now offer early college academies on-site, where students can train for careers in teaching and medicine, with business-funded, full-ride college scholarships to reward top students. The goal, says Grier, is “to try to
create high schools that fit the kids, versus trying to make all our kids fit one model.”

THE HISTORY: When theory meets need
Superintendent Grier wasn’t hired to reinvent Guilford’s high schools. Six years ago most districts in North Carolina were focused on boosting reading and math proficiency in elementary and middle schools, especially for poor and minority students. But in Guilford County, economic distress created rich soil for experimentation. Even before Grier reported to work, GTCC’s Cameron flew to Tennessee, where Grier was leading another district, to talk to him about workforce preparation.

Grier suggested the middle college concept, which he first encountered while working in Sacramento, California, in the mid-1990s. He then implemented it in Williamson County, an affluent suburb of Nashville, where he was superintendent from 1996 to 2000. The Tennessee school, Williamson County’s Middle College High, is now in its ninth year and enjoys strong
support from the families of former and current students, says founding principal Harold Ford. He admits, however, it sometimes runs into political trouble because it serves some students with chronically low test scores.

But Grier says that’s the point—to save kids who are leaving school unemployable. Cameron bought in, as did school board members, business leaders, and principals Grier included on early planning. “We’re losing human capital when we don’t have programs like this to capture these people,” says Cameron, who helped open one of Guilford’s first middle college schools.

THE COST: Join forces

Partnerships are the key to keeping costs controllable, Grier says. Students use college classrooms, so the district doesn’t pay for utilities and maintenance. Because students spend part
of their day taking college classes,
high school teachers can work with smaller groups.

The first year, middle college costs about $500 per student more than regular high school, Grier says. But long-term, the per-pupil cost is about $300 a year less. Guilford businesses and foundations help pay students’ tuition, reward successful teachers, and renovate office space for high school staff to move onto college campuses. For students in the Early College, business donations cover tuition—about $6,000 a year for public school students, compared with $23,000 for regular undergrads at the private liberal arts school.

THE PROBLEMS: An imperfect process
New types of high schools are bound to meet resistance. GTCC faculty and trustees worried that young teens would disrupt and distract, and that principals would dump students they didn’t want to deal with. Some Guilford County Schools staff members feared the opposite: The new schools might skim off top students. And many complained that creating intimate settings for a few would siphon resources from the large high schools that still educate most kids.

Clear-cut success has also proved elusive, according to some studies of the early experiments across the country. Two of Guilford County’s middle college high schools logged the state’s lowest pass rates on 2005 math, science, and English exams. Grier acknowledges the setbacks, but notes that middle colleges are recruiting students who might otherwise be on the streets and tend to come to the school with lagging test scores.

Tony Habit, executive director of North Carolina’s New Schools Project, a public-private effort backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, knows these growing pains are normal. But he says it’s vital to make sure everyone, especially teachers and principals, understands that this is a whole new philosophy of high school. There can be no more slow-tracking of students, no memorizing and bubbling in tests. Habit says that Grier’s bold steps have encouraged other districts to try new approaches to high school reform.

Grier says it’s a challenge to get the right staff into all the new schools. He often recruits principals from elementary and middle schools, where “they look at teaching children, not teaching biology.” Empathy and high expectations are a must, he says. So is perseverance, but that’s not a problem. Grier has plenty of it to go around.



Photo: ©McIntyre Photography

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