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Leveraging Potential

In efforts to close the achievement gap, Black college leaders partner with foundations to create innovative, rigorous high schools for minority and disadvantaged students.

By B. Denise Hawkins

Dr. Stanley Battle, president of Coppin State University, takes comfort in knowing that his “children” are close by. Nearly 120 ninth-graders enrolled in the Coppin Academy, Baltimore’s newest public high school, occupy two floors of the university’s library. They are just an elevator ride away from Battle’s office.

In one room of the academy, Telisa Claiborne guides students in her English class through a discussion of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Down the hall, university students are wrapping up tutoring sessions with a group of freshmen — high school freshmen. Although Battle runs the campus, Coppin Academy is under the command of Principal William L. Howard.

The academy, which draws from a pool of Baltimore ninth-graders, is one of nearly a dozen such innovative school partnerships nationwide. Various studies have suggested that students, particularly African-Americans, may perform better in smaller, more personalized learning communities. In recent years, Black colleges and universities have proven increasingly willing to test that theory, launching early college high schools to educate and nurture minority students. The goal is that those students will continue to progress through high school and choose to attend college after graduation.

For many students, Coppin Academy is a dramatic change in

environment from their troubled homes and impoverished neighborhoods. Howard and the instructors at the academy emphasize respect, manners, neatness and scholarship. Howard, a former Catholic school principal and guidance counselor, wants a lot for his students.

“I want them to be good people, well rounded, conscious of their heritage and able to speak to the homeless or to dignitaries with equal respect,” he says.

Some Black college leaders and local educators say the new collaborations are fueled by a sense of urgency to close the achievement gap. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in conjunction with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, have provided nearly $10 million in grants over five years to fund the Early College High School Initiative.

The concept offers local minority and disadvantaged high school students small classes, rigorous course work, committed teachers and attentive counseling — an academic environment that had previously belonged exclusively to those who could afford it.

“[Coppin Academy] is part of a university-assisted model in which students will have an opportunity to receive some college credit,” says Eve M. Hall, executive director of the Gates Redesign Program for the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, which administers the $4.9 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

TMSF partnered with several HBCUs and their local school districts as part of the initiative. The fund provides merit-based scholarships and programmatic support to HBCU students and the institutions that they attend.

In Louisiana, Southern University and A&M College and the East Baton Rouge Parish School District converted Capitol High School, a large, academically low-performing school, into separate boys and girls schools; the Capitol Pre-College/Early College Academy for Girls and the Capitol Pre-College/Early College Academy for Boys. North Carolina’s Winston-Salem State University and Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools created the Winston-Salem Preparatory Middle Grades Academy, which focuses on sixth grade through 10th grade. The academy will begin teaching 11th grade in the 2006-2007 academic year and 12th grade the year after. Texas Southern University and the Houston Independent School District oversee the Texas Southern University Math and Science Academy, housed at Jones High School. The academy is the third small learning community developed at the high school.

“We wanted to work with the schools of education at these institutions because these are places that produce more than 50 percent of the nation’s Black teachers,” Hall says of the HBCUs. “These institutions were also the ones that showed that they had buy-in, and existing relationships with local school districts, community leaders and civic organizations.”

While age and uniforms are probably the most obvious differences between the high school students and their college counterparts, Hall says the academies are simply an extension of the historical role of Black colleges.

“They have always taken African-American students with little resources or academic preparation and molded them into diamonds. This High School Redesign Program is no different,” she says.

Still, venturing into the national education reform arena was a leap of faith for some of the colleges.

“As an HBCU, we took a big step being a part of this new initiative, but failure is not an option,” says Dr. Gussie Trahan, interim dean of Southern’s College of Education and an alumni of Capitol High School.

Hall maintains that these institutions aren’t in this alone. “The college works with the school districts to improve achievement … it is not solely shouldered by the college.”

Trahan says Southern is committed to turning around Capitol and ensuring “that every student who graduates from the academy is prepared to go to any college.” The high school rated in the 30th percentile nationwide this year on the Iowa Tests of Educational Development, according to the Louisiana Department of Education.

For Coppin State’s Battle, being a part of this national education initiative is about rescuing children and communities.

“If we don’t better educate the children in our neighborhood, we won’t have jobs. And we certainly won’t have a population prepared to support themselves,” he warns.

In 1998, Coppin State, a medium-sized liberal arts college with about 8,000 students, made national headlines when it assumed management of then-failing Rosemont Elementary School. Located in a blighted neighborhood on Baltimore’s west side, the school now ranks among the city’s top 10 percent of elementary schools, says Kevin Carr, coordinator of the university’s ambitious Urban Education Corridor. Coppin Academy is one component of the corridor.

An Expanding experiment
While HBCUs had developed an early college program before 2002, the concept has been in practice for decades. In 1974, Dr. Janet E. Lieberman of LaGuardia Community College in New York designed the first public “middle college high school” to help underserved students transition into higher education. Starting with 100 high school sophomores, Lieberman proved that students who were placed in a college environment could achieve academically.

With HBCUs taking a lead role in early college programs, they can expect to be looked to as models for future college-guided programs, said Dr. N. Joyce Payne when the High School Redesign Program was launched. Payne is the founder of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund and director of minority and human resources programs at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

The concept isn’t being tried just by the HBCUs associated with the Thurgood Marshall Fund. Nearly two years ago, about 20 HBCUs and Hispanic-Serving Institutions began launching their own early college high schools, also funded through the Gates Foundation.

When the Josephine Dobbs Clement Early College High School opened in Durham, N.C., in 2004, it offered its initial class of 82 ninth-graders something they couldn’t get in the public school system — two years of college credit in addition to a high school diploma. Guided by principal Nicholas J. King, the school is housed in the College of Education at historically Black North Carolina Central University. Dobbs is the result of a partnership between NCCU, Durham Public Schools and SECME Inc., a national organization that works to increase the number of minority students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs. The Atlanta-based alliance is one of eight national organizations picked by the Gates Foundation to administer the more than $40 million it earmarked to create approximately 70 early college high schools.

Dobbs was one of the first early college high schools SECME helped launch. A year earlier, the organization helped open the Jacksonville Early College High School, working in tandem with the Duvall County Public Schools, Florida Community College, the University of North Florida and Edward Waters College. The Jacksonville school emphasizes careers such as biotechnology construction, environmental and engineering technology and engineering biotechnology. Selma City Schools, in partnership with Tuskegee University, Wallace Community College and Alabama State University, opened the Selma Early College High School in January 2005.

The students at Dobbs don’t wear uniforms and blend in well when they sit next to college students in the classroom, says King, who prefers it that way.

“Early college high schools will help to bridge the gap between high school and college, where we lose too many students,” says Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education initiatives at the Gates Foundation. “At these small schools students will receive the personalized and accelerated learning they need to ensure a smoother transition to college or the workplace.”

Dr. Yvonne B. Freeman, executive director of SECME, says it’s too early to tout the project’s results, but she is excited about the future impact of the program.

“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,” she says.

Leveraging Potential
Although the schools show early promise, King is careful to sound a cautionary note.

“For students to be in our program, they have to come to us with basic skills. While some of our students are very, very bright and gifted, there are others who are facing severe academic challenges,” he says. “We try to look at a child’s potential to achieve and the talents that they have that may need to be mined. It’s not about working miracles.”

If King’s students can rise to the occasion, they will leave Dobbs with at least  60 hours of college credit, much of it in STEM-related courses. Located in the shadow of North Carolina’s famed Research Triangle Park, the high school hopes to increase the number of minority and female students pursuing advanced studies and ultimately careers in those fields.

Yet working to close the achievement gap between students of color and their White counterparts doesn’t mean “turning the early college high schools into elite places that exclude students,” says Michele L. Williams, director of the early college high school programs at SECME.

“We don’t want to limit admissions to the academic cream of the crop.” Most of the schools in the program offer summer bridge programs and tutoring services to help students prepare for the rigors of the schools.

But according to Freeman, the students aren’t the only ones benefiting from the innovative program.

“Our focus in the program is very teacher-centered,” she says. SECME is working with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to provide professional opportunities for its high school faculty, including working with them to achieve national board certification in science, engineering and math. For example, more than 20 teachers in the Selma, Ala., early college high school program are applying for national certification.

Hall notes that while established teachers can improve their credentials, the early college high schools also offer inroads into the teaching profession for HBCU students.

“[The programs] serve as a pipeline for new African-American teachers to school districts,” she says. “Student teachers working with our project will learn cutting-edge approaches by nature of being connected to teachers receiving innovative training. This initiative is giving them an opportunity to use the expertise on their campuses that often goes hidden. It’s a chance for professors as well as their students to show their strengths.”

But Hall and Freeman know that cultivating and supporting good teachers is just one part of a larger process. If they want the early college concept to be successful, they both say keeping classes small, yet challenging, will be critical.

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