Dare County Schools officials seek state’s approval to open early college
Right now, Dare County is one of 17 of the 100 counties in North Carolina that does not have an early college school option for high school students. That may not be the case for long.
This October, Dare Schools officials plan to submit an application for an early college to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction—the first step in a process that also goes through the state legislature and could culminate with the school opening on the old College of the Albemarle (COA) campus on Twiford Rd. in Manteo in the fall of 2024.
The concept behind an Early College “is to provide students the opportunity to receive an associate degree while in high school without having to pay for the associate degree,” Steve Basnight, Superintendent of the Dare County Schools, told the Voice. “The whole premise is that nobody’s falling behind because everybody’s going to have the opportunity to complete that associate degree. It’s just all done on different tracks based on that student’s ability to handle and move forward.”
Denise Fallon, Dare Schools’ Director of Secondary Education, stated that “We’re looking at expanding opportunities for students, giving them some choices. I think it makes a huge difference in the lives of students.”
According to Dare Schools officials, at the proposed early college, all courses will be honors-level courses. Students will receive a high school diploma upon completion of the N.C. standards for high school graduation. Beginning with their enrollment in the ninth grade, students will also be able to take college-level courses for college credit and concurrently earn high school credits for completing them, depending on their goals, interests and pace of learning.
Students will be working toward an associate in arts degree, an associate in science degree, and/or a career certification before graduation. They will have five years to complete this program as opposed to the traditional four-year graduation plan. The associate degree or career certification will come from COA, the county’s early college partner.
In a way, both Basnight and Fallon are early school alum. Basnight was the principal of Knapp Early College in Currituck County from 2013 to 2018 and was later superintendent in Hyde County, where there is also an early college. Fallon succeeded Basnight as principal at Knapp and was there from 2012 until she came to the Dare County Schools earlier this year.
The new Dare County Early College would be a small school, with slightly less than 100 students per grade level—with 100 students per grade being the maximum allowed. The school, which requires students to apply, will accept students from all over the county, and Basnight added that, “We’ll run a bus from Hatteras.”
According to Basnight and Fallon, the idea is to accept students who are from low socio-economic backgrounds, who are minorities, English-language learners, those at risk of not graduating from another high school and as well as those students wanting educational advancement at a quicker pace. Grades are not a criterion for acceptance.
“We want students who are going to be successful in that environment. And some of the hardest transitions we saw in students [at Knapp] are students who were basically the straight A students,” Basnight stressed, noting that those traditional high achievers may not thrive in the more flexible and individualized environment of the early college.
Asked about the prospects that not all of the enrolled students would be successful at a Dare County early college, Basnight stated that, “In six years at Knapp, I think there were three students that graduated…without a college credit.”
While high school students in Dare County already have the opportunity to earn college credits, Fallon explains that there are key differences at an early college.
“In a traditional high school setting you can’t start until you’re in the eleventh grade. And you’ve got to meet certain GPA [Grade Point Average] standards and testing standards…In an early college setting, you can start in ninth grade. You still have to meet some of those benchmarks,” but the way an early college is set up, “provides a lot of support for students.”
At the same time, Basnight explained that the early college curriculum is not just for those heading for the halls of higher education.
“Going to early college and taking college courses is not just about going to college after that. A certification, completion of a career in technical education track with welding or HVAC, all of that plays into this. Plus, if a kid gets an associate degree and decides to go into the military, they go in at a higher pay grade than someone who just enlists. I don’t want someone to think this is just about pushing kids to college…it provides the option of going directly into the workforce with a certified career.”
One key component of any early college is the teacher. When asked what qualities are best suited for that role, Fallon said the district is “looking for maybe advanced certifications…teachers who had been AVID [Advancement Via Individual Determination] trained…You need people who are willing to think outside the box…And because it is a small school setting…they play a lot of roles, and they have to be able to.”
One question that hangs over the attempt to open an Early College in Dare County is funding. According to Basnight, the State of North Carolina only approves funding for three Cooperative Innovative High Schools each year—and it could potentially approve an early college without funding it.
If that is the case, Basnight noted that “in the conversations we’ve had with the [Dare County] commissioners, I believe they’re all in on this. And in the conversations we’ve had with COA, I believe they’re all in on this. All the players right now really want this to happen.”
As for role of the Dare County Board of Education, it has approved the county’s plan to apply to the state and some have taken tours of early colleges in other communities. Basnight, who became Dare Schools Superintendent on Dec. 1, 2022, also recounted that when he interviewed for that job, several board members told him they wanted an early college.
Asked if starting an early college had always been one of his main goals in Dare County, Basnight returned to what he learned at Knapp.
“When I got to Knapp…I had no concept of what Early College was,” he said. “The more I learned, the more I fell in love with it. It’s the way schools should be…Everybody doesn’t fit in a box.”
Early college, he added, affords “student’s options to do it this way or this way… based on what their interests are, what their desires down the road are, where they want to go. I don’t want any kids left out.”
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