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‘Everybody fits in’ at this early college family

Peter Moore was anxiously considering a transition from homeschool to public school. He spent several days a month at Isothermal Community College using their resources during his eighth grade homeschooling year, and he kept seeing the sign for Rutherford Early College High School (REaCH). Nerves still on high alert, he decided to take a tour with Principal Jeremiah McCluney and learn more.

He walked onto campus during a Halloween celebration, with students and teachers alike adorned in costume.

“It was a weird day to visit,” he said.

But weird, at this school, is a good thing, like a badge of belonging.

“But it really strengthened my feel and what Mr. McCluney said about a family type of feel to it,” Moore said. “And that was one of the reasons why I wanted to go there because being a homeschool, we had homeschool groups that treated you like family and REaCH basically felt like the public school version of that experience for me.”

Family is the word you hear bandied about most often around the halls and in the classrooms at REaCH.

The early college model, with its smaller school and class sizes, are conducive to classmate bonding. At REaCH, which houses 205 students, many of the students came from the notoriously awkward years of middle school in search of belonging. They tell of how they found it at this special family that doubles as a high school, which – by virtue of its early college designation – also doubles as a college.

“Like every early college, we’re trying to help our students navigate a rigorous course load and get ahead in their lives,” said McCluney, who was Rutherford County Schools’ Principal of the Year for 2018-19. “But we start beyond that, where we want to welcome them and know and feel that we are here to support them in every way we can. We really are a family, and these students really feel like our kids.”

REaCH has posted a 100% graduation rate each year since it opened. Following a rigorous program of study, REaCH students complete college classes on the campus of Isothermal Community College as they progress through high school. Students typically graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

Students talk openly about the rigor and high expectations that come with attending an early college like REaCH. Some who were used to high grades in return for less work find the transition difficult. But they talk more often, and more glowingly, about how they handle the challenge — by leaning on their “family.” A family they weren’t used to finding in their various schooling experiences through middle school.

Students at REaCH gather to catch up in the hall between classes. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

“Come to find out I actually really fit in well with the people that go here,” senior Lucas Mayse said. “I can strike up a conversation with just about anyone about anything just because we think the same and we are interested in similar things and we carry ourselves similarly, if that makes any sense. And that’s something that’s really really unique about REaCH is the atmosphere of like-minded individuals. Certainly not politically like-minded individuals or anything like that. It’s just like minded in that we all are here for the same sort of reason, which is moving to further education.”

Students remember seniors coming up to them during their first weeks of freshman year, just to learn their names and introduce themselves. Seniors are also paired with underclassmen as mentors to help with things like the student-led conferences every semester, at which students are required to present an update on their coursework and progress to their parents and teachers.

“They just want to be here for you,” junior Abigail Conner said. “And it’s an entirely different experience than what I expected because you watch high school movies and they seem so scary. But I came here and … everyone was so nice and supportive.”

Part of the amiability tracks to assembling students who didn’t necessarily fit in or enjoy the social experience of traditional public elementary and middle schools. Some of the students at REaCH call themselves “nerds” and “weirdos,” but they do it in an endearing manner that takes ownership of their collective uniqueness.

“We say, everybody’s weird and we celebrate being weird,” teacher Lori Lambert said. “We love that because everybody’s different. Here, everybody accepts everyone no matter what. There is an attitude of acceptance.”

The school owns labels like “nerd” and “weirdo.” It isn’t demeaning or ill-defining. It’s fun and contributes to a sense of belonging and mutual empowerment.

“One of the scariest parts was I thought everybody was saying it was a nerd school, [a] school for weirdos that have no friends,” sophomore Idonia Desir said. “So when I got here I thought I’d be hanging out with a whole bunch of nerds, but it actually wasn’t that bad.”

That was Jessica Flores’s experience. Flores’s mother moved here from the Dominican Republic and started taking classes at Isothermal before having to drop out. That experience fueled a drive to instill the value of education in her daughter. But school made Flores nervous, and becoming more involved at school made her feel anxious. She found it difficult to mix with people.

“I had a really hard time in school, even finding a point in going because people used to bother me a lot,” said Flores, a freshman REaCH.

Flores had trouble seeing the light within her. Her friend told her to consider REaCH because she was smart. But Jessica didn’t feel smart. 

“I felt like I barely even know what I’m doing,” she said.

Jessica Flores (left) and classmates in their English Language Arts class. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Later, a former REaCH teacher who had found his way to Jessica’s middle school said he saw something in her. He saw her struggle in the traditional public school setting.

He told her, “You belong at REaCH. Believe me, you need to go there.”

Flores arrived and she understood why. For the first time, she felt like she belonged. The anxiety melted away.

“It was amazing,” Flores said. “The teachers were just welcoming you and everything just felt like family. I didn’t even know the teachers’ names but they already knew mine.”

The teachers know students’ names, in part, because they’ve made a point to meet each one of them, as well as their families, before school even starts. They divvy up the several dozen incoming freshmen and, between the six of them, make home visits before the school year.

It’s not a requirement from the district or even the school. It’s something the teachers wanted to do. And for McCluney, it’s confirmation that his hiring decisions are going well.

“I’m looking at hiring staff that are very qualified at what they do but also share that same philosophy of building relationships,” McCluney said. “Every student wants to feel welcome and like you are available. And that’s our job and what we do. It’s one of those things where we just love it. They are why we get up in the morning, and we love it.”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.