The Early-College Experiment

Jennifer Jacobson
March 11, 2005

Each day LaQuinton Archie rides a bus to a half-vacant office building here on Brown Street. He takes the elevator to the third floor and sits down at a table under long rows of fluorescent lights.

This 70,000-square-foot space bears little resemblance to a traditional classroom. There are no chalkboards, no desks, and no walls. Yet this is where Mr. Archie, 16, comes to learn.

His makeshift school is the Dayton Early College Academy, which enrolls 170 students, beginning with ninth graders, from low-income families and lets them earn up to two years of college credit, or an associate degree, while also earning a high-school diploma. The academy, which the University of Dayton helped open in 2003, is one of about 50 early-college schools nationwide. Students in the programs take college courses on college campuses, where most of the schools are located. Drawing mostly black and Hispanic students from public secondary schools, the early-college programs are designed to keep students from dropping out and to give them more personal attention than they would receive at a traditional high school.

Academe has been quick to support early-college high schools, and some administrators tout the programs as potential pipelines to qualified minority applicants who should require few or no remedial courses once they completely enter the wider world of a four-year institution. The programs are expected to work in a way that is almost counterintuitive: They take students who may be below grade level and try to slingshot them ahead with a combination of extra support and challenging work.

The schools are also backed by substantial philanthropic muscle. Since 2001, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other charitable organizations have donated more than $124-million to the ventures. In December the Gates Foundation decided on a major expansion of the schools and expects to finance more than 170 by 2008. "By compressing the number of years needed to receive an associate's degree and eliminating the physical transition between high school and college," the foundation's Web site says, "these schools have the potential to dramatically improve high school and college graduation rates."

Like many philanthropic experiments, however, the ventures are exercises in uncertainty. Most of the schools are too new to have a measurable record of success, and preliminary assessments of the students' progress are mixed. The programs lack a standard structure and curriculum, and some instructors say they must make up their lesson plans as they go along. While nobody doubts the schools' good intentions, some educators say it is difficult to anticipate the long-term impact of this strategy for creating a shortcut to college.

"It's like trying to build a bridge without a clear blueprint," says Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education and business administration at Stanford University who studies elementary- and secondary-education reform. "I applaud the people trying to do it, but frankly, I have no idea what will come of it."

Yet administrators at the University of Dayton have high hopes for students like Mr. Archie, who plans to go to college and become a lawyer or a psychiatrist. Dayton officials hope that the school, which is just across the street from the campus, will help students from poor urban neighborhoods acclimate to college life.

After all, to many students here, college has long seemed unreachable. Most have come from a public-school system that ranks among the worst in the state. Although they are reading short stories by Anton Chekhov, some have not mastered basic grammar skills. Few have parents with postsecondary degrees.

"Everybody I know, they didn't go" to college, says Mr. Archie. "I want to be different."

'Making Them Want To Learn'

The first early college was founded in 1966 by Elizabeth Blodgett Hall, a former headmistress of a private girls' school, in Concord, Mass., who believed that students faced too few academic challenges in their last years of high school. Ms. Hall created Simon's Rock College, in Great Barrington, Mass., a private, residential college where affluent students received a liberal-arts education and graduated with an associate degree. In 1974 the college began to offer bachelor's degrees as well, and in 1979 it became part of Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

About that time some educators in New York City had decided that low-income minority students who had yet to reach their academic potential deserved a similar opportunity. In 1976 the City University of New York and the New York City Board of Education created Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College. Located on the LaGuardia campus, Middle College High School, a public school, now enrolls 470 students, the majority of whom are black and Hispanic, and allows them to take 6 to 12 college credits by the time they earn their high-school diplomas. Three years ago Middle College made its curriculum more rigorous by allowing some students to earn an associate degree in four to five years while still in high school, and it also started receiving support from the Gates Foundation.

About 65 percent of the students in this year's incoming class at Middle College are below grade level in reading and math. Yet school officials say the program has been a success: Of the roughly 110 students in the high school's freshman class five years ago, 65 percent have graduated from high school, and of those, 97 percent went on to college last year.

Proponents of early colleges say national dropout rates for black and Hispanic students show a pressing need exists for more such innovative schools. According to a study released in 2005, commissioned by the Gates Foundation and conducted by the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank, nationwide 78 percent of white students in the class of 2002 graduated from high school, compared with only 56 percent of black students and 52 percent of Hispanic students.

The study also found that in 2002 just over one third of students who had entered ninth grade in public schools graduated with both a diploma and the skills needed to apply to a four-year college. Forty percent of white students were academically prepared for college when they graduated from high school, compared with only 23 percent of black students and 20 percent of Hispanic students.

"A lot of the kids are simply not being challenged," says Thomas J. Lasley II, dean of the School of Education and Allied Professions at the University of Dayton. "It's not that they're not bright. The environment is not conducive to making them want to learn."

High Hopes

In the fall of 2002, Mr. Lasley saw an opportunity to change that environment when the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, a Cincinnati-based nonprofit organization, approached him with the idea of starting an early-college high school in Dayton. The public school would become a partnership between the University of Dayton and the Dayton Public Schools. KnowledgeWorks, with financial support from Gates, helped set up the program, which will receive $400,000 a year until 2006, when it is to rely on money from other charitable foundations and increased state support.

The idea intrigued officials at Dayton, a Roman Catholic institution with a long history of community service. Daniel J. Curran, the university's president, says the early-college program fits well with the university's social-justice mission, which dates back to the institution's founding in 1850 by the Society of Mary.

Mr. Lasley helped hire the school's teachers, and he designed the curriculum with professors from the University of Dayton's education school. He estimates that the university has invested $225,000 -- in cash, staff and faculty time, and other resources -- in the program.

Dayton officials see the partnership as a way to make their campus more diverse. A selective institution at which the average SAT score of entering freshmen is close to 1200, the University of Dayton has struggled to attract minority students. Of the 1,800 freshmen enrolled last year, all but 60 were white.

Eventually the institution hopes to award 50 scholarships each year to students at the academy, where 80 percent of the enrollees are African-American. Administrators anticipate that exposing the students to the campus ahead of time will make them less likely to drop out after they matriculate.

Mr. Lasley bases his confidence on the school's unusual setup. To enroll, students must be entering their first year of ninth grade, no older than 15, able to read at least at the sixth-grade level, and committed to their education. Guidance counselors and teachers typically refer students to the program. Parents sign an agreement form in which they promise to attend school functions and monitor their child's work at home.

There is no charge to attend the academy. There are no set class periods: Students can stay on a subject until they understand the material. The school offers no varsity sports, but students can join teams at the public school they would normally attend.

Although police officers took a student who had confronted a teacher out in handcuffs last year, the school has no metal detectors or security officers. The big open floor, divided by cubicles, feels perfectly safe.

To give students a sense of ownership of their environment, the academy pays a group of them to vacuum and empty trash cans each day.

"Students become so tied to the school emotionally -- they know it matters if they come to school," says Judy Hennessey, the school's principal. Indeed, Dayton Early College Academy has a 97-percent attendance rate, compared with 86 percent at Dayton's public high schools. "Here they can't hide, and they certainly aren't anonymous," Ms. Hennessey says.

Students who qualify for college-level work take classes at no charge at the University of Dayton and at nearby Sinclair Community College, where they receive letter grades.

At the academy, students must pass six "gateways" to earn a high-school diploma. To pass the first, students must fulfill 12 requirements, like reading at least one book, achieving a 95-percent attendance rate, and preparing for the PSAT.

Nearly two years after the school opened, 49 academy students are taking at least one class at Sinclair Community College. But the majority of students, including Mr. Archie, the aspiring lawyer-psychiatrist, have yet to complete their first gateway. Dayton Early College Academy officials had hoped more of the the students would be further along by now. Yet they say the slow start is not surprising because many of the students have significant learning gaps that challenge their ability to do high-school work.

Mr. Archie is ambivalent about not having taken a college class. "I want to take it because it's a good opportunity," he says. "But I don't want to take it, because it'll put more work on me."

'A Good Start'

Accelerating the education of underprivileged high-school students concerns some educators, who contend that there is too little research on early-college schools to justify their rapid growth.

Gerardo M. Gonzalez, dean of the School of Education at Indiana University at Bloomington, questions the unanticipated consequences of depriving students of the traditional four-year campus experience. He believes secondary schools should emphasize college-preparation without trying to create a replacement for college.

"College is more than just mastering a set of academic courses," Mr. Gonzalez says. It's "also a time to develop as a person and come in contact with new ideas and people."

Supporters say that the shortage of data on early colleges should not prevent educators from establishing the schools. "I don't think we have the luxury of trying to play it out the old traditional way," says Timothy Nealon, who came out of retirement to serve as Dayton Early College Academy's first principal, until he stepped down in December. "The classic model of remediation just doesn't work. I believe in my heart if the child makes the personal commitment to learn and they are pushed in this process, we can expect more from them."

Harvard University's Graduate School of Education is in the midst of conducting the first major study of the impact of early-college schools on students' attitudes about college. Supported by the Gates Foundation, the study will attempt to measure the success of both the Dayton Early College Academy and the Accelerated School, an early-college school in Los Angeles.

So far, in surveys and interviews, the students at Dayton Early College Academy have shown more interest in higher education than their peers in urban public high schools, says Michael J. Nakkula, an assistant professor of education at Harvard and the study's lead researcher.

"They had occupation aspirations that required more education than students we typically administer these surveys to," Mr. Nakkula says. "All this suggests to us the schools are off to a good start."

According to data from the Gates Foundation, early-college high schools report an average attendance and promotion rate (students passing a grade and moving on to the next) at above 90 percent. Many ninth graders at the schools enroll in one to two college-level courses, in which they earn C's or better.

Early-college supporters acknowledge that the model does not fit every student. But Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Gates Foundation, is optimistic. The schools, he says, demonstrate that "with the appropriate preparation and support, low-income kids can succeed in a rigorous curriculum, the kind of curriculum that suburban white kids have had increasing access to for years."

Classroom Challenges

Jasmine Hamilton says that Dayton Early College Academy gave her the push she needed. A quiet teenager who often sports a short ponytail, she attended two charter schools, two public schools, and a Catholic school before enrolling in Dayton Early College Academy in 2003. She could not wait to leave her last school, where she once saw a student throw a chair at a teacher.

When her favorite teacher there handed her a brochure about Dayton Early College Academy, she jumped at the opportunity. "I wanted to come here specifically because of the college classes," she says. "I knew that college was going to be a lot of work and lots of money so I figured if I do a lot of it now it'll lighten the load up later."

Ms. Hamilton seems well on her way to lightening that load. She has almost finished her second gateway and is taking an American history and a western-civilization course at Sinclair Community College this quarter.

She hopes to study law at Harvard University. A dinosaur enthusiast, she is also interested in Yale University's archaeology program. Spelman College is on her list, too.

Her mother, Re Annita Latham, says Jasmine did well academically at her previous schools. But when Ms. Latham gave her standardized tests to measure what Jasmine had learned, she concluded that her daughter had not mastered many subjects. "She really didn't have the fundamentals," Ms. Latham says.

She is pleased with Dayton Early College Academy so far and notes that Jasmine is no longer bored at school. "Now she's actually challenged," Ms. Latham says. "She's like, 'What time is dinner? Because I've got to do my homework.'"

Jason L. Harrison only wishes that more of Ms. Hamilton's classmates did their homework, too. A social-studies teacher at Dayton Early College Academy, Mr. Harrison says that some of his students have adult responsibilities, like taking care of younger siblings, that prevent them from completing their assignments. For others, he says, school is just not that important.

A former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, Mr. Harrison quit his job in Washington two years ago to teach at the academy, which is not far from where he grew up. He says he believed the school's innovative approach to teaching would allow him to help students more than he could have at a regular high school.

But Mr. Harrison is constantly surprised by what his students do not know. Many of them are interested in learning, he says, but "they just don't have the terminology."

On a Wednesday morning in January, the challenges he faces in the classroom are evident. After a group of students gives an oral report, he encourages them to improve their grammar, reminding them not to say "mine's" or "more better." Otherwise, he says, "your audience might not take you as seriously."

Next he and the students read a New York Times article on China's booming economy for the morning's lesson. One student asks if China and Japan are the same thing. Another slumps forward, asleep.

By early afternoon, though, the slumbering student is awake and hard at work on an essay about "The Darling," a short story by Chekhov. Mr. Harrison sits beside him, offering advice.

"We're here," the teacher says later, "to make this person so excited about learning that they'd never think of sleeping."

Whether early-college high schools are the wake-up call that helps more underprivileged students get to college may depend on the success of hundreds of Mr. Harrisons.