Early College High Schools: A Rigorous Academic Approach Combined with the Opportunity to Save Time and Money Is a Powerful Motivator for At-Risk Students

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FOR AT-RISK STUDENTS WHO STAND LITTLE CHANCE of going to college, or even finishing high school, a growing number of districts have found a solution: Give them an early start in college while they still are in high school. An early college high school (ECHS) strategy, which combines high school and college-level instruction, reduces dropout rates and improves academic achievement levels while also boosting students' chances of graduating from school and finding jobs.

About 86 percent of early college high school graduates in 2009 went on to some form of postsecondary education, according to Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit that is spearheading a national Early College High School Initiative. That compares with about 66 percent of all high school graduates nationally who enrolled in college immediately after high school in 2006, the latest year for which data is available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In a letter to schools and organizations celebrating Early College High School Week last March, President Barack Obama wrote, "By exploring innovative solutions to the challenges confronting our nation's education system, projects like the Early College High School Initiative help ensure all our students can succeed."

Administrators in districts with an early college high school report dramatic results. In the Las Cruces (N.M.) Public Schools, for example, all of the 112 students in the inaugural ninth-grade class at the district's Arrowhead Park Early College High School, the first ECHS in the state, completed the academic year last spring. "That's a major objective. My largest dropout group usually is ninth-graders," declares Superintendent Stan Rounds.

At J.D. Clement Early College High School in the Durham (N.C.) Public Schools, the graduation rate now is 95 percent, compared to a districtwide average of 74 percent, reports Durham Superintendent Eric J. Becoats. In final exams last year, 89 percent of students in the school met end-of-course standards, compared to as few as 47 percent in the district's traditional schools, he adds.

J.D. Clement is one of 74 early college high schools in North Carolina, the state with the highest number of such schools, says Tony Habit, president of the North Carolina New Schools Project, a public-private partnership that works to develop innovative high schools in the state. Last year, 46 of North Carolina's schools reported no dropouts, and a growing number of the schools reported graduation rates above 95 percent, he adds.

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A recent study of ninth-graders from North Carolina's Early College High Schools conducted by SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro suggests that early college schools are dosing gaps between minority and white students. According to "Expanding the Start of the College Pipeline: Ninth-Grade Findings from an Experimental Study of the Impact of the Early College High School Model," the early results from the study show that this model is making substantial progress toward creating an environment where all students graduate from high school prepared for college and work. The schools that have adopted this model are also creating environments that result in better attendance and fewer suspensions.

Overcoming Barriers

The ECHS movement that began with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 10 years ago has grown from a handful of schools to at least 230 schools now, serving more than 50,000 students in 28 states, reports Joel Vargas, vice president of High School through College, a national Jobs for the Future program. The Gates Foundation began supporting small schools, a sort of precursor to early college schools, on a broad-ranging, intensive national basis in the late 1990s. Among its early grants, it awarded $12 million to the Chicago Public Schools in September 2001 to support converting five large high schools into autonomous small schools, each with no more than 400 students. …