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April 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 7

It's Cool to Succeed

In Guilford County Schools, educators have developed initiatives to target the needs of diverse high school students.

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Adolescents come to school with a broad array of abilities, challenges, and goals. Although the traditional high school works well for many of these students, it doesn't work for all. Recognizing this diversity, Guilford County Schools in North Carolina has developed a mixture of programs to meet the needs of a wide range of high school students—from those at risk of dropping out to those in advanced placement courses.
Guilford County is a large school system enrolling approximately 67,000 students in more than 100 schools, which serve both urban and rural communities. Approximately 46 percent of our students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Approximately 7 percent are English language learners, who come from families speaking more than 80 different languages.
Through districtwide programs, Guilford County is changing the beliefs, expectations, and success of high school students by using data to target the specific needs of these adolescents. We began to develop this multiprogram approach in 2000, when our central office staff looked at the data and recognized that although most students were scoring adequately on state tests, many students could do better. Too many students dropped out, and too few took high-level courses—especially black students and other racial and ethnic minority students, who make up about 40 percent and 14 percent, respectively, of our total student enrollment.

The Potential to Achieve Success

Guilford County is fortunate to have the support of a strong business and foundation community, which established the Commitment to Excellence group to fund new education initiatives in the district. This support helped us begin a systematic process of examining achievement data and developing programs to address multiple student needs. The following groups of students benefit from these programs.
Low-achieving students. One of the first programs we implemented was an after-school tutoring program for struggling students. The tutoring program meets two or three days each week for two hours in the students' own schools. The district provides transportation as well as computer software that assesses students' skill levels and provides drill in literacy and math skills. The tutors, who are paid, include teachers, retired teachers, and college education majors.
The tutoring program serves all students who have scored at the bottom two levels on the North Carolina state assessments as well as other students who are facing academic challenges, such as English language learners. Participation in this program increases student time in school by four to six hours each week and provides one-on-one and small-group support. The program has produced positive results in terms of student performance and success rates. In fact, 11 of the 16 schools in the district that were on the federal watch list in 2002–2003 met achievement standards the following year, after implementing the tutoring program.
Female students with untapped technological aptitude. The Tech Girls Camp aims to encourage middle school girls to take high school computer classes that can lead to highly paid work or admission to a technical school after graduation. Started in 2004, this two-week summer day camp serves 100 students each year. It meets for part of the time on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and part of the time at the district's technology arts magnet high school. The program promotes leadership skills and involves students in an engaging technology enrichment curriculum that provides them with the opportunity to build a computer together. During the school year following their summer experience, students participate in various activities, including touring the district's two technology high schools and meeting with counselors to fully understand the district's technology course offerings.
Students who do not fit the high school mold. Guilford County was the first school district in North Carolina to open a middle college high school; we currently operate four such schools and plan to add two more next year. Middle college high schools are designed to serve students who have shown academic promise at some time in their careers but have now begun to struggle academically or have even dropped out. Located on college campuses, middle college programs draw students back into school and encourage them to complete their core high school courses while giving them the opportunity to earn some college credits. Students who have been turned off by the constraints of “regular” high schools often blossom in the college atmosphere, where they are given both more responsibility and more freedom. In addition, the middle college high schools offer a small learning community with no more than 140 students, small classes, and a good deal of personalization.
Our middle college programs reside on the campuses of four colleges—a technical college, a small liberal arts college, a women's college, and a state college. The colleges provide space; the school district pays for staff and for tuition (at a reduced rate) when the students attend college classes. The programs carefully select teachers who have a commitment to this kind of student, excellent instructional skills, and an interest in working in a small, more interpersonal setting.
Counselors and principals identify students who they believe would benefit from the middle college program. In-depth interviews, a letter of application, and parent meetings ensure student commitment. We have found that current middle college students are some of our best recruiters because they tell their friends about the program and encourage them to join.
The middle college high school model is both ambitious and successful. In our middle college programs thus far, 320 students have graduated with a high school diploma. More than 535 students have moved ahead one year toward graduation. These formerly at-risk students have taken more than 475 college courses.
Students who need greater challenge. Another program in a college setting is the early college high school, located on a small liberal arts college campus. The early college model focuses on students who are currently successful in high school, but who find the traditional setting less than supportive of their personal or academic orientations. Students applying to the early college high school are selected on the basis of their excellent school records as well as interviews, recommendations, and an essay.
Students in this program take rigorous high school courses, taught by highly qualified teachers, during their freshman and sophomore years. The following year, students enroll in the college as freshmen and take regular college courses that give them dual high school and college credit. During what would traditionally have been their senior year of high school, they are enrolled in the college as sophomores. They thus complete high school while earning two years of college credit. As day students on campus (they are not allowed to participate in on-campus night activities), they enjoy the experience and autonomy of being college students. As in the middle college schools, the district pays for teachers in the high school classes and tuition for the college courses (at a negotiated lower rate); the college provides space and access to classes.
Student success rates are high. During the 2003–2004 school year, the early college high school's second graduating class finished its traditional senior year of high school with students having completed an average of 18 college courses. All of the graduating high school seniors (or college sophomores) in the program were offered college scholarships, some for more than $90,000. Many students have continued in the participating liberal arts college; others have transferred their credits and enrolled in other North Carolina or out-of-state college programs.
Students who need encouragement to take high-level courses. To increase the number of students taking rigorous courses, the district initiated programs to foster participation in advanced placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. The district began by requiring all 9th, 10th, and 11th grade high school students to take the Pre-Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT). The district paid the $10 per-student cost of the test. Because PSAT scores correlate with the ability to perform well in advanced courses, counselors urge students who do well on the test to take AP and IB classes. In fact, during the 2004–2005 school year we began to require that all 11th graders who score 45 or higher (on a 20-to-80 scale) on the PSAT enroll in AP World History.
At the same time, we instituted the Cool to Be Smart program, which provides exciting incentives that encourage students to take advanced courses and to keep focusing on academics even during 12th grade, the traditional “senior slump” year. Through this program, students who take five or more AP courses and score 3 or above on each AP exam and students who complete the IB program attend a festive honors ceremony at which they receive a special diploma and are eligible to receive scholarships, laptop computers, and other awards for their accomplishments. Counselors and teachers promote the program, but some of the best ambassadors spreading the word are participating students themselves.
Cool to Be Smart has significantly increased the number of students taking rigorous courses, especially students of color. Between 2000 and 2004, the number of students taking AP exams more than doubled (from 2,864 to 6,804), and the number of black students in AP classes almost tripled (from 261 to 682).
High-performing students. Academic All-Star Camp serves 200 rising 9th graders who earned the highest composite 8th grade reading and math scores on their state end-of-grade exams. These students expect to go on to college, and they need high SAT scores to gain entrance to the colleges of their choice.
Held in the summer for four weeks, Academic All-Star Camp helps students learn vocabulary, develop complex reading skills, and take a practice SAT. As in the popular Survivor television series, students compete in teams for prizes based on improved academic skills (although no one is voted off the island). The healthy and low-key competition, team format, and entertaining atmosphere add energy and motivation to a month of studying and skill building. A ceremony at the end of the camp celebrates everyone's accomplishments.
Average SAT scores in Guilford County have increased from 999 in 2001 to an all-time district high of 1,011 in 2004. During this same time, the scholarship dollars offered to high school seniors in the district increased from $28.3 million to $49.7 million. Sixty-eight percent of the district's seniors take the SAT, compared with 48 percent of seniors nationally.

A Systematic Approach

Guilford County's multiple high school programs have improved individual student performance, course completion, and high school graduation rates. They have systematically increased opportunities for students of color to participate in rigorous courses. They have also increased staff members' expectations for groups of students traditionally underrepresented in AP and IB classes and students who underachieve. More staff members now see the potential of all students to achieve success. Seeing has turned to believing.
Educators in our district have begun to realize that early and varied interventions can breed success later on. In the case of AP classes, for example, middle school teachers begin early to identify, counsel, and encourage students to take more rigorous classes. The enjoyable Academic All-Star Camp prepares students well before they take the SAT.
These programs have also helped staff and administration see the usefulness and impact of celebrations, ceremonies, and symbolic awards on student motivation and perseverance. Celebrations help build a sense of community and can result in improved student achievement.
The story of the Guilford County Schools shows that providing a wider variety of programs for high school students can expand the ways in which these students are served and increase the successes they enjoy. Some students respond to summer experiences, others to after-school tutoring, still others to classes held on college campuses. Every school district needs to find the mix of programs, offerings, contexts, and school configurations to serve the identified, complex needs of its high school students.
End Notes

1 Deal, T., & Peterson, K. (1999). Shaping school culture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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