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The STEM Early College: A conversation with principal Jamisa Williams

For many students, completing middle school and approaching high school means thinking about football games, lockers, and prom. But for students hoping for admission to one Guilford County school, the transition to high school means something else: applications. Hundreds of hopeful eighth graders apply to The STEM Early College at North Carolina A&T for 50 spaces in the freshman class.

Applicants want the opportunity to study science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) at the collegiate level during high school. The selected students complete all of the required high school coursework in an AP Capstone program in the first two years. With the high school requirements out of the way, students spend their junior and senior years as full-time college students at A&T studying one of four tracks: biology or biomedical sciences, engineering, information technology, or renewable and sustainable energy.

“When people think about highly-motivated, high-achieving, they think we are looking for the most academically competitive students….We are looking for a student who exhibits good character and high interest in STEM,” said Jamisa Williams, principal of The Stem Early College, one of the state’s top-ranked schools.

“We are constantly trying to recruit more young ladies who have an interest in STEM,” Williams said. The student body at The Early College is diverse with 43 percent African-American students, 23 percent Asian students, and seven percent hispanic students.

This year, the school received nearly 400 applications from students at public and private schools. The competitive application experience also resembles the college process, where applications are screened by committee of staff members and selected students interview for a spot. Accepted students are notified in late March and begin at the school — housed on the first floor of Smith Hall, A&T’s College of Science and Technology — in August.

The location gives students opportunities for advanced study in STEM that they might not receive in a traditional school. “What I love about this school is that we are here at A&T because the opportunities just knock on our doors all the time,” Williams said. “Professors and executives here are constantly saying ‘We like your program. What can we add to it because you add value to A&T?’”

Although she was an English teacher before entering administration, Williams became passionate about STEM studies after receiving training by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to become certified as a STEM educator. She just completed her third year as head of the school.

“I wish people knew that any dream a kid has about STEM can be developed here one way or another,” Williams said. The STEM Early College program allows students to pursue and develop their individual interests throughout the four years.

Williams described one 2018 graduate who entered with a strong interest in agriscience. The student completed an internship in agriscience and wrote a successful grant with one of her professors in agriscience. “She created a nonprofit to get better food sources into cafeterias and she is going to N.C. State to continue to pursue that,” Williams said.

The rigor of the program is challenging for students and Williams believes parental involvement is key to endurance.  “This is a four-year experience and parents need to help students see it through.”

The school differs from a traditional school in its focus on STEM, but also in its small learning environment, Williams said. “With a max of 50 students, everybody knows everyone. Our parent base is really strong so there is a lot of support. We are really a family here.”

While the school follows a college schedule, it offers support and accountability for social and emotional development as well. Ninth graders are paired with 11th graders for peer advising. Every student participates in a junior seminar that teaches students how to access resources and how to navigate the transition to a college education. “They’re not afraid. By the time we get finished with them in ninth and 10th grade, they’re not afraid to say, ‘This is what I need or I’m struggling, is there a resource out there to help me?'” Williams said.

A recent alumni survey shows how the jumpstart on STEM education advances the careers of graduates. One young woman who graduated in 2016 double majored in biology and chemistry and will begin pharmacy school in 2019 at the age of 20.

“Once they start, the professors here are really attracted to them and give them great opportunities, and our students want to take advantage of that,” Williams said. About 20 percent of the class of 2018 plan to remain at A&T to complete their degree. “Every year the number increases of the students who are remaining at A&T to complete their undergraduate degree.”


Speakers at 2018 graduation ceremony of The STEM Early College. Courtesy of Sequilla Mclean.

The STEM Early College is one of the state’s Cooperative Innovative High Schools, which allows students to attend A&T classes tuition-free. The school receives the same funding as traditional schools in Guilford County, but it also receives assistance from A&T and STEM-related businesses. “A&T is very supportive of our technology needs,” Williams said. Companies provide partnerships and internship opportunities for Early College students.

Williams is excited for the launch of a “makerspace” at the school where students will take items like computers and toys apart and put them back together and create new things.

“They need that play time… That’s the part of engineering that we don’t teach kids to do. We don’t teach them that it is OK to mess up and do it again,” she said. “They feel like they have to be perfect the first time, so we are intentionally cultivating a culture of smart failure so that our students can acknowledge that they are smart, but that’s doesn’t mean they can’t fail something. And that when they do, get up, persevere, figure it out, and do it again.”

But it isn’t all classroom work. Every member of the 14-person school staff sponsors an extracurricular club including options like, “Ladies in STEM,” a radio club, Science Olympiad, and a robotics team. North Carolina A&T professors also participate as activity sponsors after completing the school volunteer training.

But the school differs from traditional programs in one obvious way: “We don’t have sports,” Williams said. “If a student wants to play sports, they have to go to their home school in Guilford County.” Several students participate on sports teams at their home schools in addition to their STEM-related extracurriculars at The Early College.

Another emphasis is on service-learning and character education. While academic development is crucial, Williams said, it is important for students to understand the need to help others.

The school has very few discipline issues, Williams said. “Kids don’t have time to mess around.”

Laura Lee

Laura Lee is the former content director and managing editor for EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

Born and raised in Union County, North Carolina, Laura attended Benton Heights Elementary School, Unionville Elementary School, Charlotte Latin Middle School, and Piedmont High School. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and international studies. After graduation, she moved to Washington, D.C. where she worked as an educator with a civic education organization and then as a program administrator for two Fulbright grant programs.

She received her J.D. from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law in 2007. In law school, she served as president of the Student Bar Association and was a Davis Society inductee. She also holds a certificate in Nonprofit Leadership from UNC-Chapel Hill. 

Laura briefly strayed from her Tar Heel allegiance in 2011 to obtain a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland where she was an Eleanor Merrill Fellow. She then worked at NPR producing content for the Washington desk, All Things Considered and Talk of the Nation

From 2013 to 2017, Laura oversaw daily production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC’s The State of Things, first as assistant news director for talk programming and then as managing editor.