ELIZABETHTOWN — Bladen County Schools may soon join 70 districts around the state that offer students the chance to graduate high school with a college education.
At the district’s retreat Saturday, Assistant Superintendent Tanya Head told board members the system has been approved to open an Early College, an opportunity for students in participating systems or schools to earn an associate’s degree while in high school.
“It’s different from the (College and Career Pathway the system currently participates in) in the fact that students who may not meet criteria for that program to have the same unique opportunities,” Head informed retreat guests.
In fact, that was the very reason Early Colleges began.
The College and Career Pathway allows students over the age of 16 to take college-level classes that count for dual credit in high school, but currently, only about 60 students qualify per year. The opportunity, nationwide, is largely supported by parents who have been to college themselves, know the benefits, and can generally afford the tuition.
Enter Early College, which was primarily developed for underprivileged students, first-generation college goers, or any other students traditionally underrepresented in higher education. Currently, about 75,000 students in 28 states participate in Early College, including those in 70 early colleges in North Carolina.
Students who elect to participate would apply in the eighth grade. For the freshman and sophomore years, basic English, math, and science classes would be taught on the campus of Bladen Community College and would fulfill high school requirements. For the next three years (Head said it would require most students five years to complete the program), participants would take career-specific classes or college first- and second-year classes.
“They would have to decide as an eighth-grader if they wanted to participate,” Head commented, adding 60 students would be accepted each year.
Though Bladen County was approved by the state to open in the upcoming school year, that notification didn’t come until June, rendering impossible working it out logistically until the fall of 2018. The state has approved funding the program on an ongoing basis, which, for the next two years, is $275,000 each year.
The figure raised eyebrows at the retreat. Since the Early College would be considered a school unto itself, it would require a principal, a college liaison, four core teachers, and a data manager, as well as transportation to and from BCC and meals.
“$275(,000) is not going to cover all that,” said board member Alan West.
“The principals would be paid out of the $275(,000); core teachers we already have; the counselor would transfer; the college liaison would be of the $275(,000); an EC teacher — we’d probably probably buy a half position and have a half for ESL and migrant; and the clerical position would be on the local side,” explained Head.
Bladen County Schools Superintendent Robert Taylor provided additional information about funding sources.
“As enrollment goes down at the high schools, the need for teachers there decreases anyway, and we’re funded on our numbers, not where those students are,” Taylor said, reiterating that 120 students would be enrolled in the system but taught by the community college.
Board member Roger Carroll pressed the idea of funding, saying board member Tim Benton, who left early, said he would not agree to anything that required asking the commissioners for additional money.
“This is a program, not a school, despite being under the auspices of a school,” explained Taylor. “We see it as an opportunity for Bladen County and know the success of Early College. The question is not can we afford it, but what do we need to do to make it a success? Parents are looking for it, and it will support the local economy.
“Ultimately, this does not require approval from the county commissioners. If they say they don’t support it, that’s just a statement. If they’re willing to give additional money to make sure things aren’t tight, that’s great, but if they don’t, that’s OK, too.
“There may be a couple of things that come out of local money, but at the end of the day, we don’t have to ask the commissioners for approval. If the state didn’t fund it, I wouldn’t recommend it, because I know we can’t afford it.”
“We don’t want to get ourselves in situation where we start now, and two to three years down the road, say we need (money),” pressed Carroll.
“Once we have fewer schools, we can reallocate some resources,” offered Taylor. “Imagine going from six schools to two schools, and you have all that money saved on personnel. You can redirect that to all schools, including Early College. It’s a benefit all the way around.”
“It’s also a commitment,” advised Head. “It will not run on $275(,000). What do we want for these students? What do we want, and at what cost? The bottom line is, is it worth our investment if students can walk out of school and into a job? It will change the landscape.”
“We see it as an opportunity to draw kids back to Bladen County Schools,” said Taylor. “It obviously will require additional resources, but most of it will be reshifting resources.
“If we came to the commissioners, though, saying we need $100,000 to make this a viable program, if they couldn’t find it in a $15-16 million budget, I think it would be a tragedy … ,” he added. “When I come in and say I need money to make the budget, beat me up — I can accept that. But when I say we need money to improve education, all nine of them should be lining up. We don’t need the commissioners, but if, for some reason, we did need to ask them for support, and I don’t even see that being more than $100,000, if they push back, I would question that.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.