When is a high school not a high school? When it's also a community college—and possibly a job training center.
This fall, Chicago will open five high school/college hybrids that will go from grade 9 to "grade 14," letting students graduate with an associate degree and high-tech job skills. IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, Motorola Solutions, and Verizon will help the Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges of Chicago develop curricula focusing on science, technology, and math. Employers will also provide summer internships, recruit mentors and guarantee graduates a "first in line" job interview if they want to go directly into the workforce.
[Learn more about STEM education.]
"We want to hire them all," said Stanley Litow, IBM's vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs, at a recent news conference announcing the initiative.
Chicago's model is P-TECH, a six-year high school in New York City opened in 2011 in partnership with IBM. Students will have the chance to earn certificates and associate degrees, preparing to go into skilled jobs or pursue bachelor's degrees.
The Chicago and New York City schools are variations on the "early college high school" idea pioneered a decade ago by Jobs for the Future and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Disclaimer: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is also among the many funders of The Hechinger Report, for which I write.)
These schools put all students on the college track with a special commitment to low-income, first-generation, immigrant, and minority students. Nationwide, there are 270 early college high schools in 26 states. Some 70 percent of students are minorities, and 59 percent qualify for a subsidized federal lunch.
"A rigorous and robust curriculum" prepares graduates for skilled jobs and higher education, says LaVonne Sheffield, associate vice president of early college expansion at Jobs for the Future.
[Read more about how Chicago community colleges stress job skills.]
While most early college high schools are four-year programs, about 20 percent include a fifth or sixth year, Sheffield says. A few start in seventh grade to give students more time to reach the college level. Others recruit students who've dropped out of high school but want a second chance.
Most are located on community college or university campuses, but some use high schools and a few in rural areas offer online courses.
Early college high school students are more likely to complete high school and enroll in college, according to Jobs for the Future. Seventy-eight percent of graduates have earned college credit; 37 percent have a year or more of credits; and 22 percent have two years or an associate degree.
College success rates go way up for students who've already passed gateway college classes in math and English, says Sheffield. They skip remedial courses and start on the path to a degree, saving time and money.
[See how to avoid taking remedial math classes.]
"It has just now hit me how far ahead I really am," writes Emily G. Fore, a 2011 graduate of Caldwell Early College High, a five-year program that's part of North Carolina's New Schools Project (NSP). "I'm 18 with a 2-year degree. I qualify for some full time jobs already … As our school motto says, 'Ready for college. Ready for career. Ready for life.'"
Most NSP schools are five year programs on community-college campuses. The graduation rate is 95 percent. About half of the 1,300 graduates in 2011 completed an associate degree or earned two years of college credit.
Texas is a leader in early college. The Hidalgo school district in the poverty-stricken Rio Grande Valley turned its entire high school into an early college school, working with a university and two community colleges. Although Hidalgo's students are overwhelmingly low income, more than 95 percent of the Class of 2010 graduated with college credits, writes Thad Nodine in "College Success for All."
Whether they're aiming for a bachelor's degree or skilled job, high school students benefit from tackling college courses, says Nodine. "Many high school students can gain valuable college knowledge and skills in workforce preparation programs." Students should look for the chance to earn vocational certificates that are "stackable"—used as steps toward a degree—and lead to "meaningful jobs with opportunities for advancement" through work or postsecondary education.