insights (2006-27)

A Very Different New High School

Knox County could be on the verge of gaining not one but two new high schools within the next two years.

The one that’s gotten the most public attention is, of course, the $40 million plus Hardin Valley High School that’s going up to relieve overcrowding in burgeoning West Knox. The second one wouldn’t involve any new bricks and mortars, but planning for it is becoming a center of attention for the school system and its Great School Partnership, with substantial involvement on the part of UT’s College of Education and Pellissippi State.

The concept that has them all excited is what’s called an Early College High School that would provide a smaller, more nurturing learning environment for students who have “lost their way” in larger, more impersonal high schools. As those involved in its planning envision it, the Early College High School would be a nearly self-contained academic unit with an enrollment of about 100 students per grade level drawn from the county’s 10 other high schools.

The new school would be located on the campus of Austin-East High School because it alone has substantial excess capacity, with fewer than 800 students in a building that has a capacity for nearly 1400. Making A-E more racially balanced is not the goal. Rather, it is reaching out to high ability, low performing students who are headed toward becoming dropouts or, in any event, not headed toward college.

The belief is that these students can be redirected by a curriculum that actually encompasses a lot of college-level college courses taught by a faculty that’s focused on individual student relationships as well as learning. Once reengaged, the students would graduate with not only a high school diploma but also a two-year college degree or two years credit toward a bachelor’s degree.

This vision emanates from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made smaller learning communities central to its crusade for transforming the nation’s high schools. “When we looked at the millions of students that our high schools are not preparing for higher education—and we looked at the damaging impact that has on their lives—we came to a painful conclusion: America’s high schools are obsolete,” Bill Gates has been quoted as saying.

Collaboration between the New York City public school system and Bard College was an initial model for what’s envisioned here. But assistant superintendent for instruction, Donna Wright, and the Great schools Partnership’s executive director, Cheryl Kershaw, have traversed the country looking at others. In Tennessee, early college high schools are already up and running in Hamilton County and Williamson County in collaboration with community colleges.

“We’ve got to find ways to rescue and educate kids with alternative learning styles,” says the dean of UT’s College of Education, Bob Rider. “These are students who have the aptitude to succeed in college but are getting lost in the shuffle. Many of them can be identified by the time they are in middle school, and early intervention is important.”

As Wright envisions it, the Early College High School would start with an eighth grade and perhaps a ninth grade in its first year with one grade a year being added thereafter, perhaps including an innovative grade 13. She’s hoping for a fall 2007 launch, but fall 2008 may be more realistic in allowing for curricular, faculty development and prospective student outreach lead times—before even getting to funding issues.

Planners have yet to develop a budget for the new school that would have its own director and dedicated faculty plus instructors from UT and Pellissippi State, who would teach courses both at the school and perhaps for upper-level science and technology courses at Pellissippi State’s Magnolia Avenue campus.

All of this is, of course, subject to school board approval, and until it’s costed out, board members can’t begin to make the difficult budgetary decisions that may be involved. However, school board Chairman Dan Murphy says, “I’m really intrigued with the idea. It’s a way of putting some touch on these kids and letting them know we care about you. Plus I really like the idea of engaging Pellissippi State and UT.”

Recent provision of lottery scholarship funds to cover the tuition costs of high school students taking college courses for “dual credit” should hold down the incremental cost of the new school. However, this source of funding will only cover tuition for one course per semester. And Pellissippi State’s President Allen Edwards ventures that it’s going to take more than that to make a dual enrollment school really flourish. “Some parents can afford the tuition, but there’s got to be a certain level of scholarships offered to be successful,” Edwards says.

How many students can be attracted to inner city Austin-East from outlying parts of the county is another open question. Magnet programs in the performing arts and math and science that were established at A-E in 1997, partly in the interest of making it more racially balanced, have disappointedly drawn fewer than 100 students to the school. But Murphy believes that, “If the marketing is done right, I think A-E can appeal. Race is not an overriding source of friction in this community.”

If the experience at Bard High School Early College is any indication, the demand will be there. The school reports receiving 4,000 applications for the 135 places in this year’s entering class.