Precious Holt, a 12th grader with dangly earrings and a SpongeBob pillow, climbs on the yellow school bus and promptly falls asleep for the hour-plus ride to Sandhills Community College.
When the bus arrives, she checks in with a guidance counselor and heads off to a day of college classes, blending with older classmates until 4 p.m., when she and the other seniors from SandHoke Early College High School gather for the ride home.
There is a payoff for the long bus rides: The 48 SandHoke seniors are in a fast-track program that allows them to earn their high-school diploma and up to two years of college credit in five years — completely free.
Until recently, most programs like this were aimed at affluent, overachieving students — a way to keep them challenged and give them a head start on college work. But the goal is quite different at SandHoke, which enrolls only students whose parents do not have college degrees.
Here, and at North Carolina’s other 70 early-college schools, the goal is to keep at-risk students in school by eliminating the divide between high school and college.
“We don’t want the kids who will do well if you drop them in Timbuktu,” said Lakisha Rice, the principal. “We want the ones who need our kind of small setting.”
Results have been impressive. Not all students at North Carolina’s early-college high schools earn two full years of college credit before they graduate — but few drop out.
“Last year, half our early-college high schools had zero dropouts, and that’s just unprecedented for North Carolina, where only 62 percent of our high school students graduate after four years,” said Tony Habit, president of the North Carolina New Schools Project, the nonprofit group spearheading the state’s high school reform.
In addition, North Carolina’s early-college high school students are getting slightly better grades in their college courses than their older classmates.
While North Carolina leads the way in early-college high schools, the model is spreading in California, New York, Texas and elsewhere, where such schools are seen as a promising approach to reducing the high school dropout rate and increasing the share of degree holders — two major goals of the Obama administration.
More than 200 of the schools are part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Early College High School Initiative, and dozens of others, scattered throughout the nation, have sprung up as projects of individual school districts.
“As a nation, we just can’t afford to have students spending four years or more getting through high school, when we all know senior year is a waste,” said Hilary Pennington of the Gates Foundation, “then having this swirl between high school and college, when a lot more students get lost, then a two-year degree that takes three or four years, if the student ever completes it at all.”
Most of the early college high schools are on college campuses, but some stand alone. Some are four years, some five. Most serve a low-income student body that is largely black or Latino. But all are small, and all offer free college credits as part of the high school program.
“In 27 years as a college president, this is just about the most exciting thing I’ve been involved in,” said Rick Dempsey, the president of Sandhills. “We picked these kids out of eighth grade, kids who were academically representative at a school with very low performance. We didn’t cherry-pick them. Their performance has been so startling that you see what high expectations can do.”
Initially, the prospect of two years of college at no cost was less appealing to Ms. Holt than to her mother, Simone Dean, an Army mechanic at nearby Fort Bragg.
“I didn’t want to do it, because my middle school friends weren’t applying,” Ms. Holt said. “I cried, but my mother made me do it.
“The first year, I didn’t like it, because my friends at the regular high school were having pep rallies and actual fun, while I had all this homework. But when I look back at my middle school friends, I see how many of them got pregnant or do drugs or dropped out. And now I’m excited, because I’m a year ahead.”
Because most of the nation’s early-college high schools are still new, it is too soon to say whether strapped states will be impressed enough to justify the extra costs of college tuition, college textbooks and academic support,
A recent report from Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit group that is coordinating the Gates initiative, found that in 2008, the early-college schools that had been open for more than four years had a high school graduation rate of 92 percent — and 4 out of 10 graduates had earned at least a year of college credit.
With a careful sequence of courses, including ninth-grade algebra, and attention to skills like note-taking, the early-college high schools accelerate students so that they arrive in college needing less of the remedial work that stalls so many low-income and first-generation students.
“When we put kids on a college campus, we see them change totally, because they’re integrated with college students, and they don’t want to look immature,” said Michael Webb, associate vice president of Jobs for the Future.
The first early-college high schools — Simon’s Rock at Bard College, a residential private liberal-arts college in Great Barrington, Mass., and Bard High School Early College, a public school in New York City — were selective schools intended to cure the boredom that afflicts many talented high school students.
“The philosophy behind the school was that the last two years of high school are not engaging, and we would set up something that would make them intellectually exciting.” said Ray Peterson, the principal of Bard High School Early College.
But at the City University of New York’s early-college schools, the emphasis is less on preventing the senior slump than on aligning high school with college.
“Our students are actually planning for college-level coursework from their first day in the school,” said Cass Conrad, executive director for school support and development at CUNY, which has a dozen early-college high schools. “And their teachers plan backwards from college, to make sure they’ll know what they need to be successful in college-level classes.”
In the pine woods of North Carolina, SandHoke students start in a small Hoke County school down the road from a turkey-processing plant, and begin traveling to the Sandhills campus, nestled among the golf courses of Moore County, only as seniors. Their first college class, in 10th grade, is a user-friendly communications course taught by Cathleen Kruska, a high-energy teacher who had them discussing job interviews, learning which kinds of questions are legally permissible and doing mock interviews.
Ms. Kruska teaches the same course to college students at Sandhills, and said the only difference was that the high school students were needier.
These days, aspirations run high. Ms. Holt, for example, is aiming for medical school. She was disappointed last semester to get three B’s and two A’s.
“That’s not what I was hoping for,” she said, “and I’m going to work harder this semester.”
Her high standards have affected the whole family.
“My 13-year-old is going to apply to SandHoke for next year,” Ms. Dean said. “And I’m actually learning from Precious. When I’m done with the military, I want to get my degree.”