Until last June, Jerusha Clark, 14, was stuck in a crowded middle school in a tough inner-city section of Dayton, Ohio. Wild kids disrupted her classes, she says, making learning difficult. Most local high schools, where Clark, a self-described bookworm, would have started the ninth grade in August, weren't much better. So when a former principal suggested an unusual public school that was opening this fall, Dayton Early College Academy, she and her mother -- who never went to college -- jumped at the chance. Clark got in and now goes to high school in classes held at the University of Dayton, the school's partner. "I've always planned to go to college," says Clark, who figures Dayton Academy will boost her chances of getting in.
For decades, universities have relied on affirmative-action programs to bring in poor minorities like Clark. Now an experimental concept, called early-college high school, is attempting to attack the root of the nation's racial divide in higher ed. The new schools combine high school and the first two years of college in four years to give motivated kids from poor, mostly minority neighborhoods an accelerated education with smaller classes and better teachers. Many are run in conjunction with local colleges, with students taking high school and university-level classes on campus.
The explicit goal: to narrow the chronic gap between minorities and whites. Just 18% of blacks and 10% of Hispanics earn a college degree by age 29, vs. 34% of whites, says Jobs for the Future, a Boston nonprofit that's coordinating a number of early-college programs. Such statistics worry experts who say they perpetuate the income gap between the races and fuel inner-city crime. Says Tom Vander Ark, executive director for education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle: "It's vitally important that we double the number of minority college graduates by 2020."
This fall, 19 early-college high schools with about 4,000 students opened in 11 states. Backed by more than $60 million in grants from the Gates Foundation and three other philanthropic outfits, at least 125 more programs with a total of 50,000 students are due to open in the next few years. In addition, 15 state education offices have asked for foundation support to set up similar schools at a statewide level.
Because the idea is so new, there's no hard-and-fast model yet. Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., has converted one of its buildings into an early-college program, whose students will also take classes at nearby Brooklyn College. Another approach is coming at the Accelerated School, in a tough section of Los Angeles. Its founders are spending $35 million to build a new K-12 school, the high school portion of which is an early-college program affiliated with the California State University at Los Angeles.
At Clark's school, the University of Dayton volunteered space for the entire school. High schoolers mingle with the college students but attend their own classes. Qualifying Dayton Academy students may also take university foreign language and computer classes -- nothing else yet -- free of tuition. The inaugural class consists of 93 ninth-graders, 80% of whom are black, and will grow to 400 by the time Clark graduates in 2007.
Students -- picked in a loose selection process one of whose criteria is a supportive parent -- must be self-motivated and are required to do an annual project on a personal passion. Clark plans one on computers, while Anthony Staup, 14, who wants to be a defense lawyer, is organizing a debate on the civil rights of Guantánamo Bay prisoners. "Where this will work is among kids who are highly qualified, from lower-income families, who normally wouldn't go to college," says education expert Anthony P. Carnevale, vice-president at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J.
Of course, the early-college experiment is far from proven, since the first class won't graduate for three years. Also, the idea may not be sustainable without infusions of money. So far, foundations have paid to develop the idea and set up the programs. But most exist on a public-school budget. Dayton Academy gets $5,200 a year per student, the same as other Dayton schools. Principal Timothy Nealon says he needs $8,500 but is scraping by because the university is donating space and professor time. Scrimping by buying used textbooks on Amazon also helps.
Still, the early-college idea is attractive to universities, which often come under pressure to take more local students. Six blue-chip colleges, including Stanford University and the University of Chicago, are talking to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation about launching early-college initiatives. "It's kind of a grow-your-own diversity" program, says Robert J. Baird, the Wilson's director of school-university partnerships. As it catches on with Jerusha Clark and thousands of other aspiring minorities, early college may yet turn out to be a new dawn in higher education.
By Brian Grow in Chicago