SANFORD, N.C. — Led by two of its classmates, a freshman literature class plotted to break out of a concentration camp. The high school students held a detailed discussion of the best time to elude the guards and how to survive after escaping, based on the book they were reading for class. When time was up, they trooped back out into the Central Carolina Community College campus to go to their next class.
It’s been almost two years since high school students moved onto the CCCC campus through Lee Early College. The school nearly doubled in size in the 2007-08 school year from 73 to 156.
Principal Rob Dietrich said the program held a “learning semester” in the fall as staff worked to help more students integrate into college classes, but they’re back on track.
LEC offers both core high school and college classes free of charge. It’s part of Gov. Mike Easley’s Learn and Earn Early College High School educational initiative in which students graduate in five years with both a diploma and an associate degree, with all credits transferable if they choose to enroll at a four-year institution as a junior post-graduation.
“The challenge is to engage the students and prepare them for college not in four years, but tomorrow,” Dietrich said.
LEC is funded primarily by a $1.5 million grant from the state that lasts through 2011, with additional money from various sources, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Dietrich said discussions are taking place on finding funding after the grant runs out, but right now the primary focus is on current students.
Dietrich’s measurement of the school’s effectiveness is based on multiple factors: number of applications, student performance in college courses, number of students who graduate and what kinds of schools or jobs they go on to.
With no graduating class for another three years, the latter measurements aren’t yet available, but Dietrich said school leaders have been pleased so far with the first two. The school actively recruits from East and West Lee middle schools, and Dietrich said staff members receive multiple e-mails and phone calls every week from interested parents.
To attend LEC, students fill out an application that includes a personal essay and three teacher recommendations. They can only enter LEC as freshmen at the beginning of the school year. A major misconception has been that the school is just for academically gifted students.
“This is a school for anyone with the potential and the maturity to do well here,” Dietrich said.
Math teacher John Howard said there is a common thread between the students he sees attend LEC, but that it isn’t necessarily academic.
“A lot of my students are the kinds of kids who were bored in regular school,” math teacher John Howard said. “They don’t think in terms of challenging, they think in terms of interesting, but it turns out to be the same thing.”
When it comes to the college courses, students are simply expected to keep up with the class and its requirements, the same as any other college student. In the high school classes, there are high expectations, an emphasis on problem solving and public speaking, and zero tolerance for late work.
Since the school opened its doors in August 2006, only one student has dropped out entirely. Those who choose to quit generally return to a traditional high school like Southern Lee or Lee County, Dietrich said.
Student Body President Hillary Akers said motivation is key.
“You have to want to do this,” the sophomore said. “If you think it’s too hard and you’re not going to do the work, it’s not the place for you.”
Staff and faculty keep an eye on students to make sure they’re not getting overwhelmed, Dietrich said, and extra instruction and tutoring is available for those who need it.
“It’s such a small group that we’re like a big family,” English teacher Staci Whitton said.
Freshman Brett Holmes said the school has a much more relaxed social atmosphere than some of his friends see at Southern Lee.
Howard said students tend to bond amid the increased freedom and pressures of a college campus.
“I think they understand that it’s sink or swim, that they’re all on the same journey, that they need each other,” Howard said.
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