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A-F Grades: Why early college high schools succeed

This year was the first time that North Carolina schools received a grade for their performance. The North Carolina General Assembly created the grading system in 2013, see North Carolina General Statute § 115C-83.15. The A-F grades measure a school's success in achievement and growth, but the results heavily rely on the former - 80 percent achievement and 20 percent growth. The grades are determined using a 15-point scale where 85 to 100 is an A, and so on down the scale. The grades were supposed to move to a 10-point scale after this year, but legislation passed by the General Assembly this session will keep it at the 15-point scale for the time being. Other proposals seeking to change the weight given to growth versus achievement have, so far, failed to gain traction. EdNC's series this week looks at the 17 schools with 50 percent or more free-and-reduced-price lunch students that received As.

When public schools in North Carolina received A-F grades for the first time this past February, one narrative quickly emerged.

The story of the haves and have nots.

Opponents argued that all the grades showed was that poor schools do worse. 


More than two-thirds of schools (charter and traditional public) got a C or better, but of those, most received a C with only a small percentage receiving an A. About 28 percent of schools received a D or F, and most of those have a high percentage of low-income students. 

But there were outliers. 

According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, seventeen schools with 50 percent or more free-and-reduced-price lunch students received As. EdNC decided we wanted to take a closer look and see what made these schools different. Maybe poverty doesn’t equal poor performance. Maybe there were some strategies and tactics that could raise the bar even for students with few resources. 

We quickly realized that not all of the 17 schools receiving As could be treated equally.

For one, most of them were early college high schools, which operate in a completely different manner from traditional schools.

Eleven of the A schools were early college high schools and one was a middle college high school. Here is an explanation of the difference between early and middle college high schools.

I visited Beaufort County Early College High School to get a sense for how early colleges were able to raise the bar for their students. 


First and foremost, Beaufort Early College has an advantage when it comes to achievement. While they focus on low-income students who are the first in their family to go to college, they don’t accept everybody. There is a rubric they follow when deciding who attends. 

Emily Pake, principal of Beaufort Early College High, explained the process to me. 

Staff look at a number of different factors. Students who are low income or first in their family to go to college score higher. Also, academic achievement plays a role in who gets to attend, though not what you might expect. 

“They don’t have GPA in the middle school,” she said. “But we look at their grades. Actually you score more points if you’re an average student versus one that makes straight As.”

She said this is because they are looking for the students who, given a different setting, can thrive in a way they may not in a traditional high school. Early colleges are typically set on community or four-year college or university campuses, and are usually smaller than traditional high schools. Beaufort Early College has 218 students now, according to staff. DPI’s NC School Report Cards website lists it as having 204 in 2013-14. Compare that to Southside High in Beaufort County, which DPI lists as having a population of 389 in 2013-14, or Washington High in Beaufort County with 1,007. The state average is 837 for similar schools.

“There are some folks that would say what you’ve done is taken the cream of the crop away from the high schools and you’ve done well,” said Beaufort County Superintendent Don Phipps. “Our students are strong students, but I think they’re a good representation of what most of our high schools have as well.”

Beaufort Early College High is not taking the best students away from traditional high schools. However, it’s also not taking the worst. 

“A student who may have a D or an F and really struggles across the board in their academics, bringing them to a setting like this – because the expectations are very high and there is a lot of student accountability – it’s almost setting a student up for failure,” Pake said. “This place is not for everyone.”

Attendance and behavior in middle school also factor into the decision to bring a student to Beaufort Early College High. Pake says staff wants to make sure that students are up to the expectations of participation and maturity that being on a college campus – with college students – requires. Poor attendance or behavior may not necessarily disqualify an applicant, but good attendance and behavior is an attribute the school looks for. 

The students who come to Beaufort Early College High School are motivated, and they need to be. Pake says there is a lot expected. In the first two years, they will have four core classes and two electives, whereas at a traditional high school, they would likely only have two core classes and two electives. Students attend the school through their 13th year when they will hopefully graduate with a high school diploma and an associates degree. Pake says that even those students who don’t get an associates degree average around 54 college credit hours, and many of them turn around and enroll at a community college after graduation to finish their degree. The majority transfer to a four-year college. 

“Our students for the most part are not the wealthiest, and they may not even be the brightest students in the county, which is sometimes a misconception. Though they are very hard working, bright students,” said Megan Ormond, an English teacher at the school, adding, “We have students who come and intend to meet our expectations because they want the best for themselves.”

According to Joyce Loveless, Senior Director of School Services and Early College High School Director for North Carolina New Schools, admissions policies for early college high schools are formed in partnerships between local education agencies (LEAs) and their higher education partners with their target student populations in mind. 

“Collectively, early colleges use a variety of strategies to determine which applicants are selected. A rubric could be one of them,” she said. “Schools are advised to collect the minimum amount of information needed to determine fit and no student should be automatically excluded in the selection process.” 

She also says the same procedures apply to middle college high schools.

While Beaufort’s procedures may not be universal among early college high schools, it does give a glimpse into how they operate differently than traditional high schools

The early college model is an excellent strategy for getting North Carolina students into college. However, these schools are outliers. They are set up for students ready for high expectations and hard work. At Beaufort Early College, and many other early college high schools, those students may have average grades. But they’re not low performers, and they’ve also demonstrated the maturity to attend classes regularly and stay on task.

We should expect early college high schools to receive As – and worry about those that don’t.

And while there may be strategies that traditional schools can borrow from these models, it is important to remember that they are not teaching the same spectrum of students found in traditional public schools.  

The Map: School Report Cards

Monday: A-F Grades: Why early college high schools succeed

Tuesday: Ocracoke School: An education like no other

Wednesday: Rutherford College Elementary: Another community school

Wednesday: Riverbend Elementary School: Excellence and intimacy

Thursday: Henderson Collegiate: A school built on idealism

Friday: Why do some schools serving low-income populations get As?


Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.