Education
7:00 am
Wed April 11, 2012

Early/Middle Colleges Boost Guilford Graduation Rate

North Carolina had a high school graduation rate that ranked 25th in the nation last year. The state statistics are showing improvement, but still about 27 out of every 100 students do not receive their diploma on time. Of all the large and urban school districts in the state, Guilford County has the best graduation rate. Part of the reason is a growing number of the district's early and middle colleges. Students at those schools are now earning degrees at a near perfect pace. Jeff Tiberii reports as part of our American Graduate series.

Jeff Tiberii: An eclectic mix of students navigates through a hallway. There are sleepy eyes and nose rings, pink hair and energetic voices. They wear collared shirts and oversized hoodies, skinny jeans and long flowing dresses. One girl leans against a rail eating a sandwich; nearby a group of three waits for the elevator, thumbing away on their phones. This is Guilford Technical Community College. You wouldn't know it at first glance, but this hallway is also home to a high school, and a few success stories.

Amber Kellam: If I had stayed in public school I wouldn't be where I am today.

Alec Matulia: I was very strongly considering leaving school."

Jacke McKinney: I just didn't enjoy school. Here I really enjoy coming to school.

Amber Kellam, Alec Matulia and Jackie McKinney are products of the 11-year-old Early/Middle College at G.T.C.C. The program is one of eight in Guilford County where students are on college campuses. In addition to a high school curriculum many offer a fifth-year where students can enroll in college courses and earn credit, free of charge. Class sizes are about 15 which staff members say is the biggest key to fostering a supportive, successful environment. Most students are here because of behavioral or emotional challenges, learning disabilities and many have been victims of bullying. The majority are at-risk of dropping out. Susan Kimbrough teaches a study skills class. She has her students fill-out a questionnaire in the fall.

Susan Kimbrough: The last question I always ask is: "What can I do to help you be more successful?" And I can tell you that out of a class of 15, I would have 10 that would say "don't give up on me". To have a child believe that nobody is going to stick with you to see you successful, is heartbreaking.

Kimbrough was one of the original six staff members of this school. She describes a family-like atmosphere where teachers text and call students regularly to check-in on homework. Students once disinterested in the classroom now commonly show up an hour early for extra help. Overall the approach appears to be working. This middle college had a class of 52 seniors last year. All of them graduated. Many earned associates degrees during high school and 48 moved on to four-year schools.

Maurice Green: This concept of seeing tomorrow today can be very impactful for students.

Maurice "Mo" Green is the Superintendent in Guilford County. The system has more early/middle colleges than any other school district in the state. Throughout Guilford there are more than 22-thousand high school students. Last year the entire system had a graduation rate of better than 83-percent. The graduation figure for all of the early and middle colleges last year was 99-percent. Despite the impressive numbers there are some questions. While graduation rates are rising standardized test scores aren't. System wide results are flat or showing a slight decline. Again, Green.

Green: You have more students take the examination, which is a good thing. But those additional students who are taking it may be pulling the overall score down.

Green points out that along with test scores, demand is an issue. Last year 500 students who applied didn't get in due to a lack of space. The other major question is what can translate, and how, from the early and middle college model to larger high schools. Educators admit they don't have an answer to that yet. For those who do get in, the results are almost always good. Amber Kellam is now 20, years removed from constant trouble and fighting at her traditional high school.

Kellam: Uh, this is my GTCC middle college high school ring. What does that ring symbolize, remind you of when you look down at it? It's my accomplishment of what I've done. This is the high school that I'm very proud that I came from. This ring tells me every day how my life changed because of this school.

Kellam is graduating with her associate's degree in Criminal Justice next month. She wants to become a police officer in Greensboro. This fall another early/middle college will open in Guilford County with the goal of giving other students a realistic chance at graduating from high school and moving on.