District aims to increase expectations, college readiness focus at high schools

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District aims to increase expectations, college readiness focus at high schools

By RACHEL HEATON
rheaton@beaufortgazette.com
Published Sunday, May 13, 2012   |  1194 Words  |  

A few years ago, Ariana Davis and Tanasia Hamilton couldn't imagine earning a college and high school degree simultaneously.

"I thought senior year would be relaxing," Davis said.

Instead, she found herself taking two or three college courses a semester, as well as high school and online courses.

Weekends, she found, were meant for catching up on sleep and homework, not hanging out with friends.

"You have to keep in mind that you do have a big responsibility. You have to get your work done," she said.

Both Davis and Hamilton earned associate's degrees from the Technical College of the Lowcountry on Friday, and are set to earn their high school diploma at Whale Branch Early College High School's June 7 graduation.

The two transferred from Beaufort High School to Whale Branch High two years ago so they could take TCL classes for free.

Students at all county high schools can enroll in the dual credit program, but Whale Branch High offers the courses its campus.

Hamilton will attend the University of South Carolina in Columbia to study education; Davis will attend Coastal Carolina University and hopes to become a veterinarian.

They're part of the 83 percent of Whale Branch High's first class of graduating seniors who have been accepted to college or enlisted in the military.

That number has district officials excited. The school's College and Career Readiness Initiative has been a success, they say, and parts of it should be replicated in other schools.

Two main components of the initiative could be put in the district's four other high schools: beefed-up guidance departments and an increased focus on technology.

Details are still in the works, but district officials are slated to submit a proposal at Tuesday's Board of Education meeting.

MORE GUIDANCE

For Geri Henderson, the 11th and 12th grade guidance counselor at Whale Branch High, guidance is a round-the-clock job.

She says she frequently works seven days a week. Parents and students stop by her office or call her on weekends.

"When I wanted to give up, she was there," Davis said of Henderson. "She's been there every step of the way. She's like a second mother."

Henderson said she's committed to her job because the students are like her own children.

"I see who she is going to be tomorrow," Henderson said. "She's going to be my nurse one day, or my mechanic, and I want to make sure she puts all the screws on the tire right and doesn't poke me six times in the arm with a needle in the ICU."

The efforts of Henderson and other Whale Branch High guidance counselors can be replicated at other schools, district instructional services chief Sean Alford said.

For example, guidance counselors meet with students in their classroom once a month. Parents attend guidance meetings, and newsletters are sent home.

Students write practice college applications. High school juniors take eight to 10 college visits paid for with Title I funds, federal money the school receives because of its students' high poverty level.

Expectations are high. Students were challenged to hand Superintendent Valerie Truesdale a college acceptance letter or military orders in exchange for their diploma.

About 83 percent of the nearly 130 students will be able to do that. About 8 percent are going into the military, Henderson said. Many students are headed to Coastal Carolina University.

Alford said that's the focus he'd like to see at all the county's high schools.

"High school isn't the end," he said. "The diploma is not the finish line, so our focus cannot be on just getting them through."

MORE TECHNOLOGY

Under the district's proposed initiative, high school students could be seeing more technology.

At Whale Branch High, every student uses a laptop to research and complete projects. Next year, the students' will use online math textbooks, Truesdale said.

Whether students across the district get laptops or something else, such as a tablet computer, is still undecided, as is whether the devices will be given to all students, Truesdale said.

Laptops at Whale Branch High were purchased with Title I funds. The 650 laptops cost $287,000, district spokesman Jim Foster said.

The cost of rolling that out district-wide is a concern, Alford said. No cost estimates for the initiative were available Friday.

There's also some concern about purchasing the equipment and training teachers by next school year.

Alford said a timeline for implementation of the new technology would be decided by the school board.

MEASURING RESULTS

Truesdale said once some of Whale Branch High's programs are replicated at other high schools, results will be measured in a number of ways.

Ninth-graders' pass rate of English and algebra classes will be tracked to ensure students don't fall behind their peers, a high indicator they will drop out, Truesdale said.

The number of students meeting the S.C. Commission on Higher Education's requirements for university admission will also be tracked. These requirements go beyond a normal high school diploma -- students must take more science classes, for example.

Currently, only 18 percent of Whale Branch High seniors aren't meeting these requirements. At Bluffton and Beaufort high schools, that number is 30 percent. At Battery Creek High School, it's 25. At Hilton Head Island High School, it's 23.

Truesdale said the district will also continue tracking on-time graduation rates and enrollment in college-level and advanced courses.

Expectations that the initiative will succeed are high.

"One-hundred percent across the board would be great," Truesdale said. "There isn't any reason that every child cannot finish our high schools with a plan in mind after high school. Their post-secondary plans should be very clear, specific and attainable."

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content:

Whale Branch High senior earns TCL award; May 4, 2012

Whale Branch High School shows early signs of success; Sept. 23, 2011

Whale Branch High students say they have added pressure to put positive mark on school; Aug. 16, 2010

Whale Branch High students to get laptops, digital books; April 26, 2010

TCL signs off on Whale Branch High's early college program; Dec. 15, 2009

Staff begins work on Whale Branch High 'early college' details; Sept. 19, 2009

S.C. Commission on Higher Education website