At one of the first early college high schools in the nation—now in its sixth year—it’s become more than just about giving kids college credits while they’re in high school.
It’s about changing the way the education world works. And according to panelists at a webinar hosted by The Council of State Governments June 16, it’s time for the change.
“This was a bold effort to give students a substantial bite of college while they’re in high school,” said Dayton Early College Academy Principal Judy Hennessey, a panelist in the special webinar.
Six years ago when the school opened, the idea of an early college high school was more of an entrepreneurial effort, Hennessey said.
Basically, the idea of an early college high school is to allow students to earn college credit up to an associate degree while they’re in high school, said Joel Vargas, program manager for the Early College High School Initiative, part of the nonprofit Jobs for the Future. Students graduate high school and can transfer the college credits directly to a college or university.
Some early college high schools are on a high school campus and some are on a college campus. Most of the schools are designed for disadvantaged and underprivileged students—where most of them would be first-generation college students.
That’s the target demographic for the Dayton Early College Academy. The school focuses on poor students who don’t see themselves going to college. That’s a hard cycle to break, Hennessey said. Poverty shapes education, she said. “Poverty is everything it’s cracked up to be.”
Students at poor schools tend to be less engaged and put forth less effort, she said. “We live this everyday—the students who come to us say they didn’t see themselves as college material,” she said.
But Hennessey’s early college high school and many across the nation want to change that. They want to teach students that, “it’s OK to be smart.”
“We want kids to start to close their eyes and see themselves moving into a college dorm,” she said.
That idea seems to be catching on across the nation. Since 2002, the tally for early college high schools grew from three to 201 across the country today, according to Vargas. There are now early college high schools in 24 states with concentrations in California, Georgia, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas, according to Vargas.
Nationally about 55.5 percent of students at early college high schools are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and 88.2 percent of the students are getting some sort of college credit, according to Vargas. Eleven percent are earning an associate degree and 74.2 percent are students of color, Vargas said.
Early data show the early college high schools nationwide improve high school dropout rates and also improve college graduation rates, compared to conventional high schools, Vargas said.
“It could really be a game-changer to low-income and underprivileged students,” Vargas said. The bet is that by completing college coursework early, these students can be more successful in college, he said. That’s because early college high schools are built more around college expectations.
In most states, early college high schools are free to the students, so earning college credit while in high school can save families money toward college. “Students will also be motivated by financial savings earning college credits,” Vargas said. “This is really important for first-generation college students.”
North Carolina is also a leader for early college high schools. Tony Habit, president of North Carolina’s New Schools Project, echoes some of the same promising evidence that the schools get underprivileged kids graduating high school and going into college—successfully.
North Carolina began with 12 early colleges in 2005; that has grown to 60 today, Habit said. The state is also planning for at least 50 more of the schools, according to Habit. Nearly 8,000 students enrolled in the early college high schools in the last year, he said.
The schools tend to be smaller environments and serve “more challenged students than all high schools total,” Habit said.
The schools focus on students with high needs. “At the end of the day—this is not about moving a school onto a college campus, but changing the way teachers teach,” he said.
And that takes a certain cultural shift—one that Habit said North Carolina’s General Assembly has embraced. The legislature broke down the barriers between high school and postsecondary education, paving the way for these early college high schools with the Innovative Education Initiatives Act of 2003.
“After 37 years in education, I am absolutely convinced that this is a very promising reform effort,” Hennessey said.