Future of Work

Fast-growing ‘early college’ schools push kids through barriers to college

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A senior at Ben Davis University, Josh Witham hopes to study computer engineering in college.

Education leaders in Indiana and across the country are promoting early college high schools that let students earn a diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time.

The programs give students a leg up on college — and save them thousands of dollars in tuition. But as they proliferate, early colleges are growing from a niche alternative in a handful of tiny schools to a new strategy for preparing high school students for the future. Indiana is at the forefront of efforts to bring early college programs to mainstream schools.

Unlike dual-credit courses, which let high school students pick up a few college credits, early college programs target students who might not make it to college without support, said Julie Edmunds, a researcher at the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

“We know that our economy is really requiring a different set of skills,” Edmunds said. “You need to have additional credentials. … This is a model that really focuses explicitly on that goal.”

There are many approaches to early college, from small schools embedded on college campuses to programs designed to help career and technical education students get credentials in their fields. Regardless of the context, early college offers structured paths for students to earn associate’s degrees or a significant number of transferable credits.

“The idea is that you don’t want students just randomly taking courses,” Edmunds said.

Early college programs are steadily catching on in Indiana. Since the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis launched an Indiana early college network in 2006, it has endorsed 12 fully-fledged early college programs. Eighty more are in some stage of development. When Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz began highlighting promising practices this year, one of the first schools to win her praise was Ben Davis University High School — a Wayne Township early college high school.

Among the most developed early college programs in Indiana, Ben Davis is a small, freestanding high school founded in 2007. It’s geared to teens with academic potential who might not thrive in a traditional school, administrators say.

“We attract a middle of the road kid,” said principal Rebecca Daugherty. “These are kids who might not necessarily take advantage of AP classes.”

With demographics that are fairly similar to the traditional high school a few miles away, Ben Davis is diverse. About 59 percent of students are minorities, and more than 68 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to the state. About half are first-generation college students, said Daugherty.

In fact, it’s the mission of early college programs to support students who might not make it through college otherwise. That’s one reason why education leaders are so enthusiastic about them.

For the past decade, Edmunds has been leading research into outcomes at small, college-based early college programs in North Carolina. Students in the high schools she studies are chosen by lottery, so she also can follow the progress of teens who wanted to go to early college but were not admitted.

“We’re finding a lot of positive impacts,” Edmunds said. “(That’s) why people have been excited about the model.”

Compared to kids who did not win spots, students who attend early college programs are more likely to take course loads that prepare them for college and enroll in higher education, Edmunds has found. About 29 percent of early college students earned credentials, typically associate’s degrees, compared to just 4 percent of the students who did not make it into the program. An American Institutes for Research study of several early college programs also found positive results.

Ben Davis has had startlingly good outcomes. For the past five years, the school had a 100 percent graduation rate, and, Daugherty said, 87 percent of its graduates earn associate’s degrees – far more than is typical in early college programs.

Students at the school choose areas of focus, take some college-level classes with adjunct professors from the school’s partner Vincennes University, and earn significant college credit. The district pays for the credits students earn, so teens can reap huge savings, getting two years of college for free.

That’s one of the great advantages, said Ben Davis senior Josh Witham who is aiming to study computer engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology next year.

“My parents are not wealthy by any standard,” he said. “In a few short months, I’ll have an associates degree completely free of charge.”

Although it’s not designed to serve elite students, Ben Davis is selective in another important way: teens and families are expected to be really dedicated to the program, said John Taylor, assistant superintendent. The district requires students to apply to the school, and a big part of getting in is showing commitment.

In many ways, Rosa Ramos-Ochoa is a perfect fit for Ben Davis. The daughter of a single-mother who never attended college, Ramos-Ochoa used to skip recess to help in the school nurse’s office. That’s how she settled on a future career — neonatal nursing — when she was still in middle school.

Ramos-Ochoa came to Ben Davis because she wanted to be sure she was prepared to study medicine in college. When she was picking a school, her friends tried to convince her to go to the traditional high school, where she could still take dual credit classes.

“But it’s not the same,” Ramos-Ochoa said “There’s way more credit hours that I have done compared to my friends right now.”

Not every student makes it through Ben Davis. Between 10th grade when teens enroll and graduation, the class size shrinks by about 20 percent, state data show. That rate is fairly typical for early college programs, according to Edmunds, and most students leave because they move out of district, Daugherty said. But students said they knew other teens who transferred out because the program was too much work or they were falling behind in classes.

“Every semester people leave,” Witham said. “You have to really be dedicated to your education, and you have to be really ambitious to go here and succeed.”

Having committed students is one important reason Ben Davis is thriving, but Taylor believes there’s another essential ingredient to the program’s success: the strong support and personal attention at the school.

Like many early colleges, Ben Davis is a small school with just 384 students, which helps create a close-knit community, where students say they recognize others in the halls and counselors always notice if their grades start to slip.

The district intentionally placed the school in a building apart from the regular high school to build a sense of community, Taylor said.

“We have the students in one place,” he said. “Every adult in this building is focused on providing the supports necessary for students to graduate.”

It was a difficult adjustment for Ramos-Ochoa, who left behind many friends for early college, but over the last four years, she’s come to love it.

“The staff know me. The janitors know me,” she said. “That’s what I like about the school.”

The small-school version of early college is fairly common, and the research showing strong results also has focused on that small school model. Edmunds team is following students in small, college-based programs and the schools in the AIR study had an average of 290 students.

In Indiana, however, there’s a growing movement to launch early college programs within larger traditional high schools. Of the 12 early colleges endorsed by CELL, only four are independent schools like Ben Davis. The others are embedded in larger high schools.

When the early college trend began more than a decade ago, schools were primarily based at colleges, said Tyonka Rimawi, director of early college for CELL. In Indiana more early colleges are independent or based in mainstream high schools because they serve rural areas without college or university campuses, she said.

“We knew if we wanted to bring these opportunities to underserved students, we’d have to adjust the model,” Rimawi said.

Last year, Indiana was one of five states chosen to partner with NC New School, a North Carolina based organization, in a push to expand early college in rural communities, funded by a $20 million federal grant. Indiana is still catching up with states that led the early college push, but the state’s emphasis on dual credit has laid the groundwork for expansion, said Angela Quick of NC New School.

Some experts say early college programs within larger high schools cannot precisely replicate the experience students gain at a place like Ben Davis. But Rimawi believes they can still create a shared culture among the students they serve by setting aside time for them to be together or giving them dedicated space in the building.

Schools that adhere to early college principles will be successful regardless of their location, she said.

“It really doesn’t matter whether you’re in a separate school or whether you’re working with a cohort of students,” she said.

As school districts expand early college programs into new contexts, such as large high schools or career and technical education centers, the programs have increasingly little in common with the dedicated early college high schools that have shown such promising results, Edmunds said.

In order to successfully use the early college model to transform schools, leaders must go beyond simply adding more dual enrollment courses to school curriculi, Edmunds said. They also must look deeply at the kind of instruction and support they offer.

“If you can use that as sort of the wage for thinking differently about those things and as sort of a way to align your school improvement work,” Edmunds said. “I think that can be really powerful.”

bargaining

Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.