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Elizabeth City early college hopes to reach untouched population

In North Carolina, early colleges are part of an initiative out of the Department of Public Instruction called Cooperative and Innovative High Schools (CIHS)

These schools are supposed to target at least one of three populations: “students who are at risk of dropping out of high school, first-generation college students, and/or students who would benefit from accelerated learning opportunities.”

An early college opening in the fall in Elizabeth City, located on the campus of College of The Albemarle, will target all three. When asked to name the most exciting aspect of Elizabeth City Pasquotank Early College’s opening, Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools (ECPPS) Chief Academic Officer Joanne Sanders pointed to that very fact.

“For this project to be able to affect the kids who have never been to college, their families, as well as the academically gifted at the same time is unusual,”  Sanders said.

She explained that there are many academically-gifted students who don’t have the resources — whether that means money or knowledge — to attend a four-year university. Sanders said she hears from families who want their children to attend college but also need them to work.

“They really don’t know the route to take to get into college,” she said. “We’re opening a door for a population we have not touched.”

There are currently 116 CIHS schools in the state — 102 that partner with community colleges and 74 of which are early colleges. There are two other early colleges that partner with College of The Albemarle but aren’t located on campus. Dean Roughton, the dean of the college, said the student population this early college will serve is, to some extent, in greater need. 

Around 80 percent of ECPPS’ students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Roughton said families in Elizabeth City are more racially diverse and of lower socioeconomic status than the populations the early colleges in Camden and Currituck County serve. 

The early college will use a cohort model, starting with 40 to 50 students in the ninth grade alone. Every student will be expected to graduate with a two-year associates degree. Roughton said, under the district’s current system, many at-risk students don’t qualify to be able to take college courses, and the students who do don’t start until their junior year. 

Early colleges have seen a great deal of success in the state. In 2015-16, 95 percent of early colleges outperformed the state average cohort graduation rate, which many at 100 percent. Ninety percent of early colleges met or exceeded growth that year, and 91 percent received an A or B for their school performance grade.

Rhonda James-Davis, the district’s director of Career and Technical Education (CTE), agreed with Roughton that having two years of college paid for by graduation time is an important opportunity for many students.

“That’s big,” James-Davis said. “I think that’s big for families.”

Elizabeth City Pasquotank Early College was approved in January by the State Board of Education but still needs a principal, teaching staff, and students. The school was funded by a grant from Golden LEAF ECPPS received last year. ECPPS leadership is currently working to create applications to push out to the community. Students must meet one of the three populations that early colleges target. 

“All of our students will fall into one of those three categories,” James-Davis said. 

Early college will also mean better preparation for entering the workforce after high school, ECPPS Director of Technology Amber Godfrey said. Godfrey said students will be “receiving skill sets that maybe they wouldn’t have received in their regular high school classes.”

“We’re just giving them additional opportunities and additional skills for them to go into employment or go into a higher education,” she said. “We’re preparing them for life.”

Roughton said many students will be able to earn certifications in vocational areas and be employed locally, right out of school — some before they finish the certification.  

The school will be a 1:1 device school, and its curriculum will be centered around STEM. There will be three main pathways for students to choose from: human services technology, engineering, and science. Godfrey said economic development research and community surveying support the need for students to fill these three areas.

Students can choose other programs and courses but will have guidance counselors to keep students on track to graduate. ECPPS also plans to hire a counselor/college liaison to make sure students are earning both the high school and college credits they need. 

The school district is holding a parent academy to tell families about this new option in March. But there is already a buzz about town, ECPPS spokeswoman Tammy Sawyer said. James-Davis said she recently got a call from the parent of a seventh grader, asking what her son should do next year to be eligible for early college.

“Parents in the community are very excited about this opportunity,” Sawyer said.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.