Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox
Turning around struggling high schools is the toughest work in education reform. Research found that a $3.5 billion federal program meant to fix the nation’s lowest performing schools — which focused disproportionately on high schools — did little to improve student achievement. In this ongoing series, The Hechinger Report is visiting high schools that have beaten the long odds to learn what’s behind their success in improving graduation rates and sending more students to college.
BYESVILLE, OH — In this small, rural town among the farmland and rolling hills of southeastern Ohio, residents of a certain age easily recall a time when readily available industrial jobs provided a solid path to the middle class for those with a high school diploma and a willingness to work hard. They worry about the younger generation because they know those days aren’t coming back.
“The mindset 15 to 20 years ago was you could just graduate high school and land a job at one of the factories,” said village mayor Jay Jackson. “But a lot of those jobs have moved on and the ones that are here require some higher education.”
Meadowbrook High School, part of the Rolling Hills school district, operates in a county beset by declining population and low-wage jobs. The median household income is 24 percent lower than that of the nation as a whole and fewer than 14 percent of adults have a four-year college degree. School officials say that 70 percent of their students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a measure of poverty.
Yet Meadowbrook, which serves 490 students from across a sprawling 128-square-mile district, is thriving when it comes to graduation rates and participation in higher education. In just a few short years, the school has managed to create a culture in which going to college is becoming the norm rather than the exception.
At Meadowbrook, 92 percent of students now graduate on time — the school’s highest rate in recent memory and 11 points above the state average. And from 2013 to 2016, the number of its graduates enrolling in associate or bachelor’s degree programs rose dramatically, from 28 percent to 47 percent, according to school officials. The school, which is still working on improvement in other academic areas, is offering its students something they haven’t had previously.
This fall, the officials say that 38 percent of the school’s juniors and seniors are participating in a dual-enrollment program, taking college courses for full credit alongside their high school classes. Incoming freshmen speak confidently with visitors about their plans to attend college, and several faculty members have gone back to school themselves, to earn advanced degrees.
The administration and faculty trace the changes directly to a cooperative effort among rural school districts in the state to overcome the challenges they face. The Ohio Appalachian Collaborative began with 21 separate districts coming together in 2010 to pool resources and secure outside funding on a scale that the individual districts could not have managed on their own. The result is a model for how far-flung and sparsely populated schools can provide rural students with the same access to postsecondary opportunities as their urban and suburban peers.
While rural schools do well at graduating students, sending them on to college has proved a more difficult challenge. Rural high school graduates are educated in districts that often lack the resources and qualified teachers to provide Advanced Placement or college-prep classes. They are less likely to go to college than those in urban and suburban districts, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Meanwhile, the wage gap between college-educated adults and those with only high school degrees has steadily increased over the last four decades.
For Aaron Twigg, a 19-year-year old who graduated from Meadowbook last year, college seemed like a long shot at best during his freshman and sophomore years. “I blew off the first two years of high school,” he acknowledged. His teachers remember him as a very bright student who rarely applied himself. Twigg, who grew up in a single-parent household, said the expense associated with going to college made it seem like something he’d never be able to do.
At the start of his senior year, thanks to Meadowbrook’s in-house college program and relationships with teachers who “expected more out of me,” Twigg enrolled in college composition and literature classes. After doing well in them, he began for the first time to consider college as a real possibility.
Ohio has long sought to boost college enrollment by letting high school students take college classes, at no cost, before they graduate. Since 1989 the dual-enrollment program has been open to any student able to pass an assessment test. Textbooks are also provided free of charge. The latest iteration of the program is called College Credit Plus (CCP), and supporters say it provides a crucial pathway to college for those who otherwise could not afford it.
The program’s funding model, however, effectively shuts out rural students, because it’s the high schools themselves that must pay for the classes. The conservative-led state legislature chose to fund CCP by making a student’s local school district pay for tuition and books, with funds coming right out of the high school’s per-pupil budget. Critics argue that the cost is simply prohibitive in sparsely populated communities.
“In rural areas there’s often not the tax base you find in an urban or suburban school to fund additional programs,” said Lavina Grandon, co-founder and board president of Rural Community Alliance, a nonprofit school advocacy organization. Smaller budgets also make it difficult to pay teachers competitive wages, she said, especially in high-demand areas like science and math.
As a result, the dual-enrollment initiative is one that many rural schools would love to embrace but simply can’t afford.
“On the one hand we really encourage kids to get college credit, but on the other hand it’s a financial disincentive for school districts,” said Jim Mahoney, former executive director of Battelle for Kids, a Columbus-based education nonprofit that established the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative. “In Ohio, we have dramatically shifted a lot of the tax burden for education spending away from the state and onto local school districts and then pretended it’s a budget miracle,” Mahoney noted.
Or, as Rolling Hills superintendent Ryan Caldwell put it, “CCP has the potential to bankrupt a school district.”
“We spend $15 to 20,000 a year on college textbooks,” said Meadowbrook principal Molly Kaplet, adding that rapidly changing curriculums at some colleges have meant that those textbooks may only be of use for a year or two.
As of 2016, Ohio high schools are charged $166 per credit hour when a student attends classes on a college campus. At a rural school like Meadowbrook, which already receives less per-student funding than the state average, sending significant numbers of students to a college campus isn’t financially feasible. The state allows a 50 percent rate reduction if the high school provides the college class in its own building — but that requires having staff that’s certified to teach college-level courses, a rarity in most rural schools.
The cost of CCP made greater collaboration a necessity rather than a luxury, said Caldwell, who embraced the idea not only of applying for grants as a group through the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, but also of sharing resources among the member districts, regardless of proximity. “We’ve had to be very innovative and aggressive,” he said. “There’s strength in numbers.”
Caldwell also noted the importance of sharing college-level certified teachers among districts. “One may have a math teacher. We have a Spanish teacher. Another may have a business teacher. They may be all over the region but we’re all committed to sharing them so we can offer a full college curriculum to our students.”
The urgency to provide dual-enrollment classes in the school came not just from the financial savings the reduced-rate tuition would bring. Principal Kaplet found it difficult to create a culture of academic achievement when her school’s most motivated learners were spending the bulk of their time on a college campus. “You’re losing a connection with those students,” she said. “We saw our best and brightest students leaving. They were not involved in our school anymore, not involved in our athletics, our clubs, and not providing leadership in the building.”
So, in 2013, the school embarked on an ambitious mission to keep its dual-enrollment students on its campus. Funded by a $15 million state grant awarded to the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative and shared among its member districts, Meadowbrook decided to convert their seldom-used library into Colt College, a facility built for its dual-enrollment program. Named for the school’s mascot, Colt College is a bright and welcoming collection of classrooms equipped with computers, distance-learning technology and a lounge area, all for the exclusive use of its dual-enrollment students.
“We spent a lot of money on this because when you walk through those doors it’s unlike any other part of our school,” said Caldwell. “It feels different. It looks different. It’s like you’re in college. And that’s what we want our kids to experience.”
Although it’s housed on the Meadowbrook campus, students from across the region benefit by taking distance-learning classes led by instructors at Colt.
A second grant, also awarded to the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, secured funds that Caldwell uses to pay for teachers to earn master’s degrees, allowing them to teach the college-level courses. Five years ago, Caldwell notes, Meadowbrook couldn’t even offer an Advanced Placement class because the school had no teachers with the required credentials. Today, the school counts 11 teachers on staff who are certified to teach college classes. They expect to add five more next year.
“I always wanted to teach higher-level history and government,” said Ray Mertz, a social studies teacher who joined Meadowbrook in 2014. During his job interview, Mertz was asked if he would be willing to go back to school to get a master’s degree, paid for entirely by the school. Mertz jumped at the chance. “This is one of the reasons I came to Meadowbrook,” he said.
Boosted by a dedicated physical space, certified staff and a concerted effort by administration and faculty to promote Colt College, Meadowbrook’s dual-enrollment population quickly surged. In the year before Colt College was launched, school officials say that approximately 25 of their students were taking college classes, all of them off-campus. This fall, with 32 courses to choose from, 90 students are taking college classes without leaving the building. “When our kids started staying,” said Kaplet, “our athletics improved, our clubs improved. The character of our whole building changed. The culture changed. These students were being role models and our younger kids were saying ‘I want to do that.’ ”
“If they hadn’t had Colt College right in the school, I wouldn’t have taken a college class,” said Twigg, noting that in high school he had no access to transportation to make the 30-mile commute to Ohio University Zanesville, one of the nearest campuses offering dual-enrollment classes. Since graduation, Twigg has been working a series of full-time jobs with plans to enroll in Belmont College next spring, applying his Colt College credits toward a two-year welding degree program.
Meadowbrook officials say it’s now much more common to see students like 17-year-old senior Brooke Clendenning, from nearby Senecaville, who began ninth grade with plans for college. She is now on track to graduate high school with two semesters’ worth of undergraduate studies under her belt. Clendenning, described by her teachers as a highly motivated learner, settled on the idea of taking early college classes back in middle school and started in the dual-enrollment program the summer before her junior year. “For me it’s more fun to come to school,” she said, “because I have the opportunity to get ahead and learn higher-level things.”
For Clendenning, whose school activities include playing on the varsity softball and volleyball teams, the benefits of taking college classes at Meadowbrook extend beyond the gas money she saves. “If I had gone off-campus I don’t think I would have the friends I have today. I know people who have left campus and you don’t even remember that they go to this school because you never see them.”
Clendenning also credits a supportive high school environment with easing her initial stress as she made the adjustment to a college-level workload. “In the beginning it felt like we were doing five-page essays every week. The workload doubles, and I would always put off my work until just before the due date,” she said. Having teachers on hand who have known her since freshman year helped. “Our teachers form close relationships with us over the years and they want to see us succeed,” she said. That’s not to say they took it easy on her.
“When I give a kid a C-minus who’s never gotten one before and they ask why,” said Mertz, “I say, ‘Well you turned it in three days late. This isn’t high school anymore.’ But then next time, when you see that kid turn it in on time, that’s when I say, ‘He might not end up with an A in my class but he’s learning lessons that go beyond the content.’ ”
Kaplet agrees. “They’re learning how to fall on their face with support. It’s that first test, that first assignment, that first paper. They’re learning how to correct it and get better. In an actual college they would be on their own,” she said. Such support is crucial, Kaplet emphasizes, because while she wants students to challenge themselves, poor performance carries steep consequences. Not only does a failing grade become a permanent mark on both high school and college transcripts, state legislators have also mandated that any student who gets an F must reimburse the district for the cost of tuition and books.
While Caldwell is confident that Meadowbrook’s turnaround can be replicated in other communities, he emphasizes that results don’t come without a lot of hard work. “The time, effort and energy involved is huge,” he said, noting in particular a staff that has been willing to go back to earn master’s degrees even without a corresponding salary increase.
Kaplet points out that Meadowbrook has to manage 14 partnerships with outside schools and colleges to make their course offerings a reality. “Our counselors,” she said, “put in an insane amount of hours just communicating with the different colleges on application requirements, getting records in, testing and placement.”
Support at the district level is crucial. “There are going to be problems,” said Caldwell. “But everybody knew that going in. If we would have stopped at every roadblock, we would have never gotten this started.”
Kaplet, who’s been a teacher or an administrator in the district for 19 years, says the payoff is not just in providing opportunities for motivated students like Clendenning, but in changing the mindset of students like Twigg who didn’t even have college on their radar.
“We now have kids taking the [assessment] test who never would have thought about going to college. In eighth grade Aaron was an underachiever. He started applying himself more, took a college class and is going to be the first kid in his family to go to college,” said Kaplet. “He’s a kid who probably would have settled for working at McDonald’s or the oil pipeline … because that’s all he thought he was good for.”