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Success is strategy in North Carolina's early college high schools

March 25, 2011 - From Dana Diesel Wallace, NCNSP Vice President of School Development:

High school educators often long for a different approach. If only they had more time to reach their students. If only they had more time to plan and collaborate with their colleagues. If only their students could be more engaged in their own learning.

Too often, we are captive to the institutional constraints that limit our abilities as educators to do what we know is best for students. Somehow, the system has come to define what we can or cannot do, rather than the other way around. But a growing number of upstart schools in North Carolina are being built from the ground up around the needs of students, instead of the needs of institutions within which students find either success or failure.

North Carolina is helping lead the way nationally in the development of early college high schools, all of which have been guided from day one by a common set of design principles with student success - clearly defined as readiness for college and career - as the singular goal. The success of these schools -- the oldest of which are now in their sixth year - is showing that such an unwavering focus yields strong, concrete results.

A new report issued this week by Jobs for the Future, a national organization that works to improve college and career readiness, takes a deeper look at how these student-centered design principles are applied at five early college high schools in North Carolina, and how each of those principles contributes to overall success.

"It is not easy to create a good early college - one that takes young people, often academically behind, and gives them the various types of support they need to meet the challenge of college coursework," authors Cecilia Le and Jill Frankfort write in their report, Accelerating College Readiness: Lessons from North Carolina's Innovator Early Colleges. "But North Carolina's experience with establishing dozens of these innovative schools demonstrates that it is possible - and on a large scale."

Statewide, North Carolina has developed 71 early colleges - more than any other state - through partnerships among the North Carolina New Schools Project, local school districts, the state Department of Public Instruction, the North Carolina's community colleges and universities.

In plain language, Le and Frankfort show how the five schools - identified by an independent consultant in conjunction with the North Carolina New Schools Project - are executing at least one of the five design principles that NCNSP considers essential ingredients to effective high school innovation (a sixth principle, focusing on leadership, has been adopted since the report was completed):

  • Ready for college
  • Powerful teaching and learning
  • Personalization
  • Redefined professionalism
  • Purposeful design

Binding all five - or six - of these design principles into a powerful whole is the deceptively simple, overarching goal of "scaffolding all students to college readiness," the authors explain, noting that North Carolina's early colleges are "leading the way" in delivering on that promise.

The five schools included in the report - Anson, Buncombe, Davidson, Vance and Warren county early colleges - provide strong examples of effective practices that help set and maintain high expectations, support students to succeed in college classes, strengthen collaboration among teachers, and foster powerful teaching and learning through the use of common instructional strategies in every classroom.

"Executed together," the authors conclude these and other strategies "reinforce one another to build the strong foundation necessary to enable students of all skill levels to tackle college work. While each of the [schools] has created this foundation in its own way, unique to its community students, they all share a common DNA: a relentless focus on preparing each student for success in college."

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