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Perils And Promise: Rural Students Thrive In Early College Program

A picture of a student doing school work.
Marco Arment
Many Vance County students earn Associate's Degrees while in high school.

North Carolina is home to more Early College High Schools than any other state. New numbers show some of the most successful programs are in rural school districts.  Early College High Schools make it possible for students to earn an Associate’s Degree while still in high school. 

As part of our series, "Perils and Promise: Educating North Carolina's Rural Students," we visited an early college in Vance County whose results have been tracked since its inception.

The early college students in Vance County have made Vance-Granville Community College a second home. Yeah, they’re high schoolers who get to hang out in a college setting all day.  But there are reminders, they are still kids.  Lunch is shipped in from a nearby elementary school.

April Trejo is hanging out with her friend Chadstity Copeland.

“Everybody is on the same page, everybody wants to graduate and everybody respects each other and everybody is friendly.  I’ve been here, I haven’t been bullied," said Trejo.   "It’s generally a safe environment.”

April and Chadstity have a lot in common.  They’re both 17-years-old, are considered minorities, their parents didn’t graduate from college, they had to be persuaded to try Early College, and now they’re on track to graduate with Associate’s Degrees next year. Chadstity says she’ssold on the school.

“It’s a privilege, you know, you get kind of a higher learning than you would in a traditional high school," said Copeland. “Like, next semester I am going to take like four college classes so it will be kind of overwhelming, but I think I can do it.”

Leoneda Inge speaks with Early College student Chadstity Copeland, who reads from her book in progress, 'Rebel or Die.'

That’s not surprising to Julie Edmunds.  She’s the Program Director for Secondary School Reform at the SERVE Center at UNC-Greensboro.  She’s been studying the state’s early colleges since they first came on the scene in 2005.

For the past decade, the SERVE Center has been tracking thousands of students who applied for early colleges that selected students through a lottery.  Edmunds says most of the 19 early colleges being tracked are in rural parts of the state, like the one in Vance County.

“Students who have the same background.  They have the same academic background, they have the same parental background they have the same motivation.  And that really allows us to compare apples to apples," said Edmunds.

They’re students who would have otherwise struggled to go to college.

“Our results are showing, that if you don’t have an intervention like the early college, those students will continue to struggle. And so the early college is giving them that exposure earlier, it’s helping them get those degrees earlier," said Edmunds.

For example, 29% of the students in early college received their Associate’s Degree six years after starting 9th grade, compared to 4% of students in the control group.

“We’ve seen that in some of these rural communities when you have early colleges in place, they can really foster additional conversations about schools," said Edmunds.

Michael Bullard has been the principal of Early College in Vance County since its inception in 2008.

“Other students out there are seeing our kids be successful and so now they’re wanting to do that," said Bullard.

Bullard said they had to do something.

“I came from another high school here and what I saw was not very many kids going to college.  And the ones that were going to college were coming back first semester.  They were not being successful," said Bullard.

Today Bullard boasts success.  He had an 89% early college high school graduation rate last year.  This spring, he says they just may have a 100% graduation rate – a big difference from the graduation rates at the two main high schools in Vance County.

Across the state, there are 77 Early Colleges and several in the pipeline. And at least one school district, Duplin County, is preparing to make all of its high schools early colleges.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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