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Early college
Sixteen-year-old Julio Martinez and 15-year-old Aaron Penny read and joke together during a free period at Johnston County Early College Academy on April 24. Credit: Kayleigh Skinner

SMITHFIELD, N.C. – When Aaron Penny first arrived here on the campus of Johnston Community College as a high school freshman, he was terrified. He had no idea if he could succeed in this early college program that sought out at-risk minority teens with promise who were also likely the first in their families to set foot on a college campus.

At this program in rural North Carolina, students take high school and college courses at the same time.

“At first I thought it was very scary, because it’s college and I hadn’t even done high school yet,” Penny, 15, said. “But then once I got into the college program I realized this is a lot of fun and it’s not as scary as it seems.”

He is one of the 250 students at Johnston County Early College Academy, part of the North Carolina New Schools network of 78 programs. Students who successfully finish graduate with two degrees: a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

Mississippi will offer its own program for the first time in August when the Golden Triangle Early College High School opens on the campus of East Mississippi Community College with 62 students. Nearby Mississippi State University will partner with the school to contribute research to the program.

Modeled after the North Carolina schools, Golden Triangle in Mayhew will serve students in four counties. The school will be funded through the same law that funds all public schools in the state, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

“At first I thought it was very scary, because it’s college and I hadn’t even done high school yet. But then once I got into the college program I realized this is a lot of fun and it’s not as scary as it seems.”

The school’s budget is still being worked out, said Golden Triangle principal Jill Savely.

She said she visited the Johnston school three years ago and wanted Mississippi students to be given that kind of opportunity.

“It was amazing to see kids talk about these traditional high schools and how they weren’t successful,” said Savely, formerly principal of Columbus High School. “I thought if there’s ever a chance to do this, I want to be a part of that.”

Golden Triangle will stick to the traditional four-year high school schedule, while Johnston is a five-year program. Still, school administrators hope to emulate Johnston’s success in Mississippi, where 76 percent of high school students graduated on time in the 2012-2013 school year, five percentage points below the national average. Only 29 percent of adults in the state held two-year college degrees, according to another set of data in the 2014 Opportunity Index, a national survey that in part examines the ability of young people to better their lives through education.

North Carolina will also provide professional development and consultation to Golden Triangle using a $26 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The money is meant for use over the next five years to aid new schools in other states and parts of North Carolina, said Joyce Loveless, senior director of school services for North Carolina New Schools and state Early College Director.

Early college
Fourth year students talk amongst themselves during a free period at Johnston County Early College in Smithfield, N.C. Michaela Iacono (right) describes the school as “like a family.” Credit: Kayleigh Skinner

These high schools – 280 across the country — are typically located on or near a college campus and cater to minority and first-generation college students. The hope is that giving these students early exposure to college, where they are underrepresented, will help narrow racial inequalities in postsecondary education and beyond.

Students who attend early colleges are more likely to finish high school, according to a study by the American Institutes for Research that found 86 percent of students sampled graduated. The 2014 graduation rate for Johnston was more than 95 percent.

Students are also more likely to graduate with at least some college credit. Nationwide, 30 percent of early college students earn an associate’s degree or other postsecondary certificate by their high school graduation.

Related: Early-college high school graduates more likely to get degree

Early college students: It’s a more focused atmosphere

“The traditional boundaries of a high school are not here,” said Johnston Principal, Brandon Garland. Students take a mixture of high school and college courses and travel to different buildings on campus for each class, just like the community college students. In ninth grade, they may only take one college class, but by junior and senior year they’ll spend most of their time on college work.

The early college program employs high school teachers to teach the high school courses, and the community college’s professors teach the college courses. Golden Triangle will work the same way.

Early college
(From left to right) Sophomores Itais Martinez, Makayla Brewington and Madison Riggs work on a group project at Johnston County Early College Academy in Smithfield, N.C. on April 24. Credit: Kayleigh Skinner

Students said the program provides a focused academic atmosphere unlike that of a traditional high school. Johnston’s application process relies heavily on interviews conducted by both the principal and staff members to determine which students truly want to attend and are prepared for the workload.

“You’re with people who are just as focused as you are and care about their education,” said sophomore Madison Riggs, 16. “They’re not caught up in the guys on the football team and stuff like that.”

Many of the Golden Triangle students, much like the ones at Johnston, will be first-generation college students. At both schools, administrators look for students who have the academic ability to be successful, but are considered at-risk in traditional high schools. Sixty-nine percent of accepted students are coming from households with an annual income of less than $39,000 according to the Mississippi Department of Education.

As associate state superintendent Jean Massey put it, the students are “not the ones that are flying high, but might have the ability to do so in a different school setting.”

The Mississippi program used a rigorous application process to select students from Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee and Oktibbeha counties. It consisted of an application, interviews, and finally a random lottery. Massey said the school received 119 applications, but only accepted about half those students. The classes will be purposefully small so students receive extra attention.

It’s a “great way to provide students with an opportunity that we’ve not had in Mississippi,” Massey said. “A chance to earn high school and college credit at the same time, and enter a school environment they feel comfortable in.”

Related: Getting to graduation: Mississippi’s state-wide push to keep kids in school

Early college
One of the entrances to Johnston Community College, located in rural Smithfield, N.C. Credit: Kayleigh Skinner

Johnston sophomore Itais Martinez, 16, said the flexibility of an early college high school allows her to stay in school. The young mother said she will be the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“You’re excited because you’re learning and you know you’re going to have an education, but at the same time it’s scary because you have so much work and stuff to worry about tests,” she said. “For me it’s harder, because I have a son.”

Aaron, who started at Johnston this year worried it would be too much, adjusted well. He can only hear out of one ear so he wanted small classrooms that allowed him to hear his teachers better. His older brother was already attending Johnston and he wanted to go somewhere where he’d feel accepted — something he didn’t have at his middle school. He also liked how his teachers eased him into the coursework.

“They didn’t bombard us with stuff because they knew we were coming in and we were scared because we were on a college campus,” he said. “So they introduced us really slowly and got to know us, we got to know them, and once we did they started the work.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about inequality and innovation in Mississippi schools.

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