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.”

hands on

Apprenticeships are now open for the second round of CareerWise high school students

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
Denver student Quang Nguyen works at an internship this past summer.

More than half the companies that signed on for the launch of Colorado’s apprenticeship program CareerWise have renewed and plan to take on a second group of apprentices this fall, while a number of new companies have added programs.

That means there are 160 new openings for Colorado high school students in fields ranging from manufacturing to information technology to healthcare, a 33 percent increase from the 120 positions available to the first group of students last year.

CareerWise offers three-year apprenticeships to students starting in their junior year of high school. It’s based on the Swiss apprenticeship model and was conceived by Gov. John Hickenlooper and businessman Noel Ginsburg, who is himself now a candidate for governor, after a trip to Switzerland in 2015. The first apprentices started in 2017.

Brad Revare, CareerWise’s director of business partnerships, said most of the companies that didn’t renew are small firms that don’t feel like they have the capacity to take on a second apprentice right now. Some are still deciding if they’ll renew — this recruitment cycle hasn’t closed — and some companies have said they plan to take a second apprentice when the first apprentice is in his or her third year so that the older student can serve as a mentor.

Revare said the renewal rate has been a pleasant surprise.

“We didn’t anticipate this high of a renewal rate,” he said. “We believe that demonstrates that partnerships aren’t just a good corporate citizen thing, but a good return-on-investment business decision. To sign up for a second cohort when the first cohort is only on the job for six months speaks to the value of this program.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done for the program to achieve its goals, though. The charge from the governor, who has made workforce training and apprenticeships one of his priorities, is to have 20,000 high school students in apprenticeship programs within 10 years. He reiterated that goal in his State of the State address Thursday.

The renewing companies include Arrow Electronics, the city of Grand Junction, University of Colorado Denver, DaVita, DH Wholesale Signs, DT Swiss, EKS&H, Geotech Environmental, Gordon Sign, HomeAdvisor, Intertech Medical, Intertech Plastics, Mesa 51, Mile High United Way, Monument Health, Nordson Medical, Prostar Geocorp, Research Electro-Optics, SAS Manufacturing, Skillful, Stonebridge, Swiftpage, TeleTech, and Western States Fire Protection

New participating businesses for 2018 include Janus Henderson Investors, Otter Products, SAVA Senior Care, the city of Aurora, and the governor’s Office of Information Technology.

CareerWise is still recruiting more businesses for 2018.

To find an apprenticeship, check out CareerWise’s Marketplace.

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.