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3 keys to student success with early college programs

Guilford County, N.C., is a national leader in providing early college opportunities for students. Here’s what other districts can learn from its success.

Like a growing number of school districts, North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools (GCS) has early college programs that allow students to earn college credit while they’re still in high school. But what’s unique about GCS is the number of choices the district offers: 14 altogether, including nine high schools that operate on college campuses.

GCS has offered early college options since 2001 and has seen remarkable success, despite serving a largely urban and low-income population. All but two of its early college high schools have a 100-percent graduation rate—and the lowest rate among the other two is 97 percent.

What’s more, these programs aren’t just serving the top students in the district, who would already be on a college track. Some of them target students considered at risk of dropping out, making college both attainable and affordable for students who otherwise would not attend.

“We take pride in offering choices for our students,” said Nakia Hardy, chief academic officer for the district. “Our early college programs are having a phenomenal impact on students. All of them are smaller than traditional high schools, and students are performing exceptionally well.”

How the Programs Work

In all of these programs, students take high school courses taught by GCS instructors during their first two years. During their junior and senior years, they take college-level courses taught by college instructors, and they can graduate with up to two years of college credit tuition-free.

At the STEM Early College at North Carolina A&T University, for instance, students can focus on one of three career pathways: biotechnology, engineering, or renewable and sustainable resources. “For many of our students, this program is their ticket to reaching their goals,” said Principal Jamisa Williams. “Their tuition is covered, and they are two years ahead of their peers when they graduate. That’s money in the bank for them.”

Focusing on the Disengaged

While the STEM Early College program attracts traditionally high-achieving students who want to get a jump on their college experience, the Middle College at North Carolina A&T is very different. It focuses on young men who feel disengaged from school and are in danger of failing. The program seeks to reengage these students by accelerating their learning so they are no longer bored with school, while connecting the skills they are developing with practical careers such as entrepreneurship or app development. (The Middle College at Bennett College is a similar program just for young women.)

“We accept students from all academic tracks, and not just the ‘A’ students,” said Marcus Gause, principal of the Middle College at A&T. “Students who are struggling in a traditional school setting often benefit from a smaller learning environment. We have class sizes of 10 to 15 students, so we can focus on students as individuals. This gives us a chance to work more often with them one-on-one.”

Guilford County’s early college programs are changing students’ lives. Williams described one senior in the STEM Early College program who wants to be a doctor and was accepted into his top choice of universities. “He has shared with me that, had it not been for this school, he would not be going on to college,” she said. “He would not have been able to afford it. We have students whose dreams are being fulfilled because of this opportunity.”

It’s not only academic achievement that defines the success of these programs. “The social-emotional skills and confidence that students are gaining are tremendous,” Hardy said. “They are able to advocate for themselves—and that’s ultimately the real benefit.”

(Next page: 3 lessons schools can learn from Guilford’s early college program success)

Here are three important lessons that K-12 leaders can learn from Guilford County’s success with its early college high school programs.

1. Leverage partnerships

“The success of our programs depends on collaborative partnerships with our higher-education institutions,” Hardy said. “And these truly are partnerships in every sense of the word.” Each of the early and middle college principals, as well as Guilford County’s regional superintendents, works closely with the president or provost at the district’s partner colleges and universities to develop and improve the programs.

GCS has clearly articulated agreements with its college and university partners that spell out which services each is responsible for. For instance, at the STEM Early College at A&T, the district covers the students’ tuition, transportation, and food service, while the university provides complete access to all resources a full-time A&T student would have, such as free tutoring from its Center for Academic Excellence.

Williams urged K-12 leaders to fully explore the opportunities these partnerships can provide. “Programs like these are like a breeding ground for collaboration,” she said, noting that A&T faculty have offered to write grants to help scale up the program.

GCS receives state funding to offset some of the cost of tuition and other expenses, and it also relies on grants and donations for assistance. AT&T, for example, has donated $250,000 to the Middle College at A&T over the last year.

“People want to invest in success,” Gause said, “and I think this program really exemplifies what students need in order to be prepared for college and a career.”

2. Prepare students for the transition to college-level work

Taking college-level courses, and being responsible for their own learning and for managing their time, can be a big leap for many high school students. To make the transition easier, K-12 leaders must ensure that students have the support they need to succeed.

All of the early and middle college programs in Guilford County provide wraparound services to help students excel. At the STEM Early College, a school counselor leads biweekly sessions for freshmen and sophomores in which the students learn skills such as time management strategies and how to deal with stress. A junior seminar program teaches students skills such as resume writing and how to produce college-level work.

Williams called the seminar “a good fit for our students.” She explained: “They’re college students, but they’re still only 16—and they’re still GCS students. It’s a good way to support them and make sure they have the skills they need, while filling in the gaps in maturity they might have because they are so young.”

When students are accepted into the Middle College at A&T, program administrators take them on a tour of the university, make sure they know where they can turn for help, and go over what is expected of them. A freshman seminar teaches them how to study effectively, and learning facilitators from both the high school and the university and available to guide them every step of the way.

3. Forge strong relationships with students

Another critical factor in the programs’ success is the attention they pay to forging strong personal relationships with students and fostering a close-knit sense of community.

“In our first week of school, there is no teaching allowed,” Gause said. “We are building relationships with students; we are having conversations to get to know who they are. We organize activities such as a basketball game with staff versus students. We let them know that we are real people, and we see them as real people as well. And when challenges do come along, and we have to get over those hurdles, we are able to get over those things together.”

He added: “Every student who walks through these doors is going to be loved and respected. It’s almost like a brotherhood. And our students really support one another as well.”

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