By J. Brian Ewing
GREENSBORO, NC – With three children all close in age, Jeanette Dockery worried about how she would pay for their college on her law enforcement salary. Thanks to a progressive public school program, at least some of that worry has been lifted.
"I can't describe how grateful I am for the middle college programs here in Guilford County," Dockery said. "My son is leaving high school with nearly two years' worth of college credit and it didn't cost us a dime. It nearly brings me to tears."
Dockery's son Antonio graduated in May from The Middle College at North Carolina A&T State University, one of eight high school programs developed by Guilford County Schools in partnership with six colleges and universities in the county, located in central North Carolina.
Early and middle college programs are high schools located on college campuses where students take a mix of high school and college courses, completing high school while earning up to 60 hours of college credit and even associate degrees before finishing their senior year.
Guilford County's school district is a trailblazer of these high school programs, opening the county's first program, the Greensboro College Middle College, in 2001. Since then dozens of school districts across the country have modeled their programs after those in Guilford County.
The district was also the first in the state and among the first in the nation to offer an early college program. Opened in 2002 in partnership with Guilford College, The Early College at Guilford is ranked among the best high schools in the nation, placing 17th in Newsweek Magazine's 2012 America's Best High Schools.
Those early and middle college programs, as well as others, are helping more than 2,000 students in Guilford County dramatically reduce the cost of college. An associate degree earned at a community college costs an estimated $4,000 and in 2011 the average college student finished school more than $23,000 in debt, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve.
But it isn't just about making college more affordable for Guilford County students, says Kris Cooke, a long-serving member of the Guilford County Board of Education. She says the district also began the early and middle college programs to reach students in a dynamic way and to help them see college as a reality.
"We try very hard to reach our students on their terms," she said. "We know that the traditional school setting isn't going to work for everyone. Each of the early and middle college programs were developed with a different set of goals and a different student body in mind. But they all share the same core principle – provide our children with the best learning experience we can."
Cooke noted that the district understands that not every student will head off to a four-year school after high school and so Guilford County also provides support for students looking to earn an associate degree.
A partnership with Guilford Technical Community College covers tuition for students to enroll in an associate degree program after completing high school. Students in that program completed the College Tech Prep course of study in high school. Those courses provide training for technical careers, from culinary arts and medical sciences to architecture and construction.
More than 2,200 of Guilford County's seniors are expected to complete the College Tech Prep program this year.
For the colleges and universities, the high school programs are a chance to connect with the community and potential new students they've helped prepare for higher ed.
"Greensboro College saw the middle college program as another chance to give back to our community," said Paul Leslie, Greensboro College vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty.
"Our faculty and staff treat the middle college students just like any of our traditional college students," Leslie said. "They are expected to meet the rigors of all college course requirements. We have seen some of the brightest, hardest working students in our community rise to that challenge and we are proud of our role in their development."
The programs don't come cheap but funding from the colleges and universities, local businesses and grants all keep the cost manageable for the school district.
Despite the price tag, parents, students and local officials continue to support the programs and the school board's decision to expand them. The district will open its second program at N.C. A&T this fall, an early college focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.
Proponents of the college course programs point to successes like a near 100 percent graduation rate for the early and middle colleges and the almost 2,000 college courses completed by the Class of 2012 as proof of their value. They also point to students and parents like Antonio and Jeanette who wanted the best opportunities for a bright future but worried about how much that would cost.
"I know I couldn't get everything I needed at a regular high school," Antonio said. "I know how lucky I am. I'm better prepared for college than most other students. The Middle College really did change my life."
Antonio will start North Carolina Central University in the fall, likely as a junior.