As Dezerea Hummel had lunch outside Marine Science and Technology (MaST) Early College in Carteret County, she talked about how, as a first-generation college student, the early college gave her the chance to “kill two birds with one stone” — tackling high school and college at once. The entire experience, she said, is wrapped around the student’s interests and plans.
“It’s kind of nice having somebody care about what your future looks like,” Hummel said.
Across North Carolina, students at over 130 small public high schools earn college credits while they work towards graduation. Many finish high school with an associate degree, some with workforce credentials or certificates, and some with a handful of credits transferable to four-year universities.
Though these schools, known as Cooperative Innovative High Schools (CIHS) in state legislation, have a variety of missions, subject focuses, and strategies for success, the nontraditional environments often offer students something regular high schools may lack: personalization.
According to the Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) definition, CIHS’s are built around “high quality instructional programming” and target certain student populations: students at-risk of dropping out of high school, first-generation college students, and students who would benefit from accelerated instruction. From the DPI website:
“North Carolina’s early colleges and other innovative schools are small public high schools, usually located on the campus of a university or community college, which expand students’ opportunities for education success through high quality instructional programming.”
“It really is a blending of we need to know these students well, care about them well, support them personally and academically — but that combined with rigor and innovative instruction,” said Isaac Lake, a state consultant for DPI’s division of advanced learning and gifted education.
Out of 133 CIHS’s, 90 have “early college” in their title. Most CIHS’s are located on the campus of a community college or university. Each grade has a cap of 100 students, but many are much smaller. Some are middle colleges, which also offer smaller classes and usually focus on students struggling in a traditional environment. Others have specific focuses, such as science and technology, teaching, health sciences, or career readiness.
What kind of student succeeds at early colleges? Why? Do early colleges really make a difference?
These are questions Julie Edmunds, program director for secondary school reform at SERVE Center at UNC-Greensboro, has been asking since early colleges began to pop up across North Carolina in the early 2000s. With multiple federal grants, Edmunds and her team have been researching the effectiveness of early colleges for over a decade, following a cohort of 4,000 students through their high school experiences and beyond. The SERVE Center has collaborated with researchers from RTI International and RAND Corporation from the beginning.
Their research has found early college students are more likely to attend class, complete courses that prepare them to enter into a UNC-system university, and graduate high school. They have fewer suspensions, earn more college credits while in high school, and are more likely to enroll in a postsecondary institution and attain a postsecondary credential.
Pitt County Early College High School provides a great example of why students succeed at early colleges. In most schools across the state, poverty is highly correlated with academic performance. But Pitt County Early College High School, where more than 80% of students are economically disadvantaged, is an exception to that trend.
For each of the five years of its existence, the school has received A’s on the state performance grading scale and exceeded growth standards. For three years in a row, the school has been nominated as one of two schools across the state to become National Title 1 Distinguished Schools.
Principal Wynn Whittington, who has been at the school since its inception, said every part of the school was intentionally created to breed success for students — from the early college model to each staff member he hand-picked to the individualized academic and personal support students receive.
“When you can take economically disadvantaged students and the students who otherwise would probably never go to college and put them in a situation where they can thrive because they have the layers of support, they have the love of a staff, small class sizes, more personalized education, they’ll run through walls for you and for themselves,” he said. “That’s what I love about this model.”
During the 2019 legislative session, a provision in the Senate budget proposed reducing funding for North Carolina’s early college high schools.
Little noticed when the Senate budget passed its chamber, the provision would phase out the supplemental funding the state provides so-called Cooperative Innovative High Schools. The supplemental funds received by Cooperative Innovative High Schools are above and beyond the traditional funding that schools in North Carolina receive. If the provision made it into the final spending plan, these schools would still get that traditional funding, but would no longer receive the extra money that, for some schools, enables them to survive.
“The loss of state supplemental funds would push responsibility for supporting early colleges to the local level. Counties with fewer resources — particularly Tier 1 counties — would be hit the hardest,” said Matt Bristow-Smith, the 2019 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year and the principal at Edgecombe Early College High School. “Many would have to close their doors. And that means our first generation college students would lose out.”
The provision changes the law to say that supplemental funds for these schools would only be given to a Cooperative Innovative High School in its first three years of operation. The provision also eventually eliminates the supplemental funding for existing schools altogether. Any of the schools that have been receiving this funding prior to the 2017-18 school year would cease receiving it as of the 2021-22 school year. If a school started getting funds in the 2017-18 school year, they would stop receiving them as of the 2022-23 school year.
Bristow-Smith said he uses almost all of these extra funds to pay for his school’s counselor, community liaison, college liaison, college textbooks, and instructional supplies.
“What the Senators don’t seem to understand is that it takes more than just the ADM/FTE dollars to run a school,” he said. “Every Tier 1 school I know spends their supplemental funds similarly to us (personnel, college textbooks, and instructional supplies). To a much lesser extent, we try to squeeze out a few dollars for PD (professional development) when possible.”
The provision did not make it into the 2019 compromise budget that passed the General Assembly, but the threat of reduced funding caused one local school board to vote to close their early college in June.
After the compromise budget passed, the school board decided to reverse course and voted to keep the school open in August. EdNC.org reporter Liz Bell returned to MaST Early College to see how it is doing in its second year.
Read the rest of our early college series below to learn more about the early college model.
North Carolina Insight Education