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Beacons of Hope
SECME Inc. partners with minority-serving institutions to create alternative high schools to increase high school, college completion rates
By Phaedra Brotherton

In 2000, only 18 percent of all African American and 10 percent of Hispanics completed a four-year degree by age 29, compared with 34 percent of Whites (total populations), according to the U.S. Department of Education. The reason, experts say, is because disadvantaged students are not getting the advanced level coursework they need during their high school years to adequately prepare for college.

Many high school reform advocates also believe that disadvantaged and low-income students aren’t being challenged enough academically during the last years of high school.

“Until recently, this educational terrain (advanced courses) had belonged almost exclusively to a privileged group of young people — those whose families could afford high-quality private high schools and those in well-funded public school districts that offered options to their highest achieving students,” says Carmon Cunningham, vice president for technology and communications at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based education reform and work-force development organization.

To better prepare African American and Hispanic high school students for the rigor of college academics, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in partnership with Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation and W. K. Kellogg Foundation, has committed $50 million to create 70 “early college high schools.” The Early College High School Initiative is a reform effort to get more disadvantaged students to complete high school, pursue a college education and complete a college degree.

Studies have shown that small schools that combine college with high school studies help ease the transition from high school to college. In this case, these small schools will allow high school students to complete two years of college study and graduate with not only a high-school diploma, but also an associate’s degree or two years of college credit.

“There have been studies that demonstrate that when high school students are offered academically rigorous curriculum they do better — and these are not necessarily the superstars, but the average kids,” says Marie Groark, spokeswoman for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says that the last years of high school are some of the “most important developmentally and often squandered academically. At these early college high schools, students will receive the personalized learning and the accelerated learning they need to ensure a smoother transition to college or the workplace,” Vander Ark says.

Enter SECME Inc., an alliance of historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, school districts, and professional societies focused on preparing students for majors in science, mathematics, engineering and technology. SECME was selected as one of eight Gates-designated organizations to receive funds to re-grant the money to create early college high schools throughout the country.

“We’re excited about Early College — not just its promise for the educational success and motivation of our young people,” says Dr. Yvonne Freeman, executive director of SECME, but about “the power and potential of these schools to forever transform public education … to literally revolutionize and reform the learning landscape and its outcome. We hope to address the challenge of the declining Black male presence in higher education as well.”

Early college high school is a relatively new concept, based on the success of the nearly 30-year-old “middle college high school” model, in which disadvantaged students take college courses and attend high schools located on community college campuses. Studies show that middle college high schools have high graduation rates because the students are motivated and challenged by the advanced studies and early exposure to college.

Early college high schools go further by allowing students to complete two years of college or an associate’s degree during the four years of high school. The Gates Early College Initiative is based on the acclaimed Bard High School Early College established in 2001 between the New York Board of Education and New York Public Schools, Groark says. Because each early college high school will be unique in structure and there are few established models to study, the initiative is considered innovative and groundbreaking.

SECME Inc. and the other grant recipients were selected based on the academic needs of the communities they represent and their ability to implement an early college program, Groark says.

Armed with a $4.8 million grant from the Gates Foundation, SECME will focus on the Southeast region of the United States and develop the high schools in partnership with local school districts and the following member universities over a three-year period: North Carolina Central University, Durham; Howard University, Washington, D.C.; Jackson State University, Mississippi; Morehouse College, Atlanta; Spelman College, Atlanta; Florida International University, Miami; Miami-Dade Community College; Tennessee State University, Nashville; University of North Florida, Jacksonville.

North Carolina Central University and the University of North Florida will be the first two of the eight SECME grant recipients to create early college high schools on or near HBCUs or universities serving large Hispanic populations.

“The curriculum is designed as a unit, with high school and college-level work seamlessly melded into a single academic program,” says Hilary Pennington, CEO of Jobs for the Future, which will be the lead coordinator of the initiative. “In addition, because college is both free and part of high school, these schools allow young people to focus on their studies in their last years of high school rather than confront the daunting maze of college and financial-aid applications,” Pennington says.

Students enrolled in the early college high school must meet state- and college-level standards and graduation requirements, which are generally reciprocal and transferable to other high schools and higher education institutions, Freeman says. “There will be great care to assist students with transfer requirements and negotiations within the constraint of inter-institutional transfer articulation agreements,” she says. Only the associate’s degree or the first two-years of college are free as part of the early college program.

Enrolled students will come from each site’s local public school system. Each early college school will develop its own admission criteria and application procedures, Freeman says. Students will be interviewed by a local student selection team appointed by the advisory committee or board made up of representatives from the local school district, the university, organizational partners and parents.

The high schools will be newly constructed facilities located on the campuses of the member universities, Freeman says. The programs will be small, personalized blended high school-college environments with faculty certified at the secondary and college levels. Freeman says the schools will be innovative and involve “exciting academic concepts all based on national content standards in science, technology, engineering, science and mathematics.”

One Size Does Not Fit All

The SECME universities and its school district partners have designed models that are unique to their particular community (see sidebar). However, all of the early college high schools must meet the following requirements:

• All students graduate with an associate of arts degree or enough college credits to enter a four-year baccalaureate program as a college junior, preferably the supporting SECME member university.

• Classes will have no more than 100 students per grade level to ensure personal attention. The students will be counseled by an adviser for academic and personal support.

• Each school will offer a state-of-the-art college-level science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum, with non-traditional internships, mentorships and industry partnerships.

• Each school will work to be self-sustaining within five years.

Freeman says schools will be able to sustain themselves through the funding from the state public school system, concurrent or dual enrollment funding, which she says will be based on specific laws for each location, funding from the SECME university and the various corporate and government partners, which will help in providing scholarship support.

The SECME grant provides funding for planning, initial start-up and resources for evaluation only, Freeman says. Each site must develop a final plan to sustain the effort. The plans will incorporate funding from the public and private sector, as well as the corporate and government partners who will supplement the basic funding.

The HBCU or HSI will be at the core of the initiative and will be heavily involved in planning and developing the curriculum.

“Rather than teach ninth-graders a curriculum designed by K-12 educators, these ninth-graders will have the benefit of curriculum designed with input from the very institutions for which they are being prepared,” Freeman says.

She is particularly excited about a model involving Tennessee State University (TSU), Meharry Medical School and the Nashville public schools — the goal of which is to address the shortage of doctors of color.

The early college model will give students who graduate with their high school diploma and two years of college credit the opportunity to enter TSU as a junior. After completing their senior year, Freeman says, they have the option of either entering TSU as a graduate student in one of the sciences or as a first-year medical student at Meharry.

The Grand Opening

Each early college high school will have a governing advisory board or committee made up of school district faculty, faculty of the higher education partners, corporate and community partners, and parents. The board will guide the early college high school’s mission and participate in human resources, fund raising, scholarship activities and planning the curriculum.

There also will be partnerships with local government and industries that will provide students with “life-ternships” and service-learning opportunities to make learning “real,” Freeman says.

In addition, SECME officials anticipate parents playing a major role in the effort. Freeman says the parenting engagement and empowerment workshops and programs will encourage and educate parents “as coaches and cheerleaders for their children,” and will “be integral to each early college high school design.”

The first schools slated to open fall 2003 include the Jacksonville, Fla., and Durham, N.C., sites. The Jacksonville program will be a partnership among the University of North Florida, Jacksonville Public Schools and several federal agencies. One of the focuses of the school will be marine science. The U.S. Coast Guard also will be one of the partners in this effort.

The North Carolina Central University model is a pre-academy program that actually begins in the seventh grade. Seventh- and eighth-grade students at four Durham middle schools will be introduced to research projects and participate in academic programs to help them build up their math, reading, problem solving and writing skills.

Students for the early college high school will be selected from seventh- and eighth-graders who participated and did well in the pre-academy program. A planning committee consisting of a representative from the Durham public schools, a NCCU faculty member in the school administration program and chairperson of NCCU’s biology department will work with the new principal to determine the criteria for admission, says Dr. Cecelia Steppe-Jones, dean of the School of Education at NCCU.

Dr. James Ammons, chancellor of North Carolina Central University, says they are in the process of benchmarking similar programs around the country, and bringing in experts to “incorporate some of the teaching and learning styles and disciplines that would make these students excited and successful.”

Ammons admits that there is some pressure because early college high school is a new concept and many “eyes will be watching” to see how NCCU will fare as a model for the innovative approach to college preparation. But with NCCU’s strong partnerships and academic strength, Ammons says NCCU is up to the task. He also believes strongly in SECME’s ability to make the initiative a success.

“I think it is in the fabric of SECME to take this risk and to be successful. The organization is dedicated and committed to the concept of high school reform,” Ammons says. “The guidance they are giving these eight programs will go a long way in ensuring that these programs will be those beacons of hope for students of all academic levels as they aspire to a college education.”

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