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Early Colleges Win Top National Honor, Encouraged to Spread the Word

At Akron Early College High School, students start their college career the day they begin high school—right on campus at the University of Akron.

Akron ECHS teens take one university course each semester along with regular high school classes, until junior year when they become full-credit college students well on their way to earning Associate’s degrees.

Last spring, half of the senior class received Associate’s degrees the same week as their high school diplomas. Nearly 80 percent of the class continued their college education this fall. This is even more impressive when you consider that most of these students are vastly underrepresented in higher education: more than half are from low-income families and most are the first in their families to attend college.

I’m thrilled that Akron ECHS and three other early colleges recently received the nation’s top honor for academic excellence—being named 2013 Blue Ribbon Schools by the U.S. Department of Education. (The other three are from North Carolina: Greene ECHS, Rutherford ECHS, and the Middle College of North Carolina at A&T State University.)

Only 50 public high schools in the country received Blue Ribbon awards this year. The fact that four were early college high schools—about 8 percent—says something about the growth and success of the model.

At a time when preparing students from all backgrounds for college and careers is considered the key to our country’s continued economic prosperity, early colleges are proving how to propel disadvantaged students to reach their potential.

Marilyn Bennett, who came out of retirement to become principal of Akron Early College High School four years ago, sees every day how acceleration, rather than remediation, makes the difference. The school’s nearly 360 students represent the racial and economic diversity of the city and its suburbs. About 60 percent live in poverty and the school’s minority population is twice the state average. The school’s 10 teachers motivate the kids with interesting, challenging coursework that is relevant to what they’ll need to know in college, and provide intensive supports to help them master the material.

“We give the students a rigorous curriculum, we set high expectations, but we’re holding their hand every step of the way,” Bennett explains. “We just constantly tell them, ‘We will help you. We will help you.’ “

In a video statement, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the Blue Ribbon is not just an honor, but a responsibility to spread the word about what works. We believe early colleges work, and invite you to learn more about them and how to build one in your district.

One good place to start is the National Early College Conference Oct. 29-30 in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Three of the Blue Ribbon principals, including Marilyn Bennett, Charlie Langley (Greene Early College High School), and Eric Hines (Middle College of NC A&T), will join hundreds more early college educators sharing innovative policies and practices and seeing successful schools in action. For more information on the conference program, visit www.earlycollegeconference.org

Joel Vargas is vice president of “High School Through College” programs at Jobs for the Future.