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Educators weigh impact of early college, student success

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The area’s longest-running early college high school is holding up under the microscope as early colleges and other dual-enrollment programs come under increased scrutiny statewide.

Christian Overton, chairman of the Camden County Board of Education, said during discussion at the board’s meeting last week that he is coming to view early college programs mainly as an opportunity for students wishing to earn an associate’s degree and then go directly into the workforce rather than as a pathway for students to transfer to a four-year college program.

Overton said the universities are finding that many students coming from an early college program and transferring in as juniors are failing 300-level courses — courses designed for college juniors — because they aren’t ready for courses at that level.

Camden Schools Superintendent Joe Ferrell confirmed that universities are finding some students who come from an early college background are struggling with 300-level courses, probably because they haven’t matured enough to be ready to do that kind of rigorous coursework.

The Daily Advance communicated by email and phone this week with University of North Carolina General Administration but did not receive a comment for this story. 

The Camden school board’s discussion began as part of a larger conversation about plans for building a new Camden County High School. The plan right now is to house the Camden Early College High School on the same campus as the new Camden County High School but also to allow the Early College its own dedicated space on the campus for a ‘school-within-a-school’ setup.

Architect Mike Ross from HBA Architects asked board members whether they thought the Camden Early College would continue to represent about 25 percent of the total high school population or whether the Early College’s share of the total student body might grow to one-third or even more.

Initially some board members said they thought the trend was toward the Early College and that more and more families were going to want to take advantage of the opportunity to get two years of college credit for free while the student was still in high school.

It was at that point that Overton offered his perspective that the universities were beginning to push back somewhat against the Early College programs.

Camden’s Early College High School is relatively new, having morphed into its current format in the past year or so from the previous CamTech High School. Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Early College High School just opened this year.

So those schools are just starting out and really haven’t had an opportunity yet to establish a track record in terms of college success.

But J.P. Knapp Early College High School, which was the first early college in the area, so far seems to be preparing its graduates for their next steps.

J.P. Knapp Principal Steve Basnight said the school only graduated its first cohort in 2012 and therefore has only a few years of data on student success. But he noted that so far the numbers look good for Knapp graduates.

Basnight said state officials did a statewide audit last year of how students who took community college courses while in high school were doing when they enrolled in four-year institutions, and the audit showed that 95 percent of J.P. Knapp graduates who had taken courses at College of The Albemarle did not need any remediation when they enrolled in four-year institutions.

“We were very pleased to see that our graduates are doing that well,” Basnight said.

Basnight said one reason the school’s graduates do as well as they do when they enroll in colleges and universities is that the curriculum is designed to prepare students for success in college and career.

“It’s not just actual academics — it’s organization, time management, study skills,” Basnight said.

If you don’t teach those “soft skills” to students you are “gambling” with whether or not they will succeed at a four-year college, he said.

For that reason, J.P. Knapp Early College offers seminars on study skills and other college and career readiness skills, according to Basnight.

“That’s a huge part of our program,” Basnight said.

Basnight said he thinks one reason the four-year institutions are concerned about the growth of early colleges and of the Career and College Promise program, which pays for students in traditional high schools to take community college courses while they are in high school, is that the four-year schools are losing tuition money for those courses that students are taking while enrolled in high school.

“It’s not just early colleges anymore,” Basnight said, noting that Career and College Promise has really taken off in recent years with traditional high school students.

The state has recently capped the number of college credit hours that students may earn while enrolled in high school at 61 hours, Basnight said, explaining that should address some of the concerns four-year institutions might have had regarding loss of tuition revenue.

Elizabeth City State University also has found early college programs mostly a plus for students who graduate from those schools and transfer to ECSU.

Johnna Coleman-Yates, dean of student success at Elizabeth City State University, said that ECSU’s experience suggests that early college graduates and other students who arrive at the university having successfully completed some college coursework have a head start on college success.

“Those students do have a bit of an advantage because they already have experienced the academic rigor of a college course,” said Coleman-Yates. “Having that intial exposure to a college-level class typically helps them when they undertake a full courseload.”

Coleman-Yates added that there is always an adjustment for students when they first enroll in a four-year institution. That’s true for early college graduates but also for freshmen, whether they are residential or commuter students.

“It’s definitely an adjustment,” Coleman-Yates said.

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