By Merrill Wolf
As North Carolina’s decades-long efforts to improve public education show signs of paying off, especially in improved achievement in the lower grades, educators and policymakers are turning their attention to what many consider the system’s crucial weakest link: high schools.
Citing alarming dropout rates and high costs to employers for remedial training as evidence of high schools’ failure, reformers urged on by Gov. Mike Easley are investing faith and funds in an approach that has shown promise in some places but yielded less impressive results in others.
Launched in 2003 with $11 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the North Carolina New Schools Project aims to create high schools that graduate students in much higher numbers and better prepare them for the rigors and realities of higher education and the modern workplace.
In addition to boosting achievement, says Executive Director Tony Habit, the project aims “to create many different types of schools that will serve as examples of changed approaches to teaching and learning.”
In June, Easley shone a spotlight on the initiative, and raised the stakes for struggling schools, when he announced that as many as 44 of the state’s worst-performing high schools must put proven reforms into effect or restructure under the New Schools Project.
The urgency of Easley’s decree derived in part from a March ruling by state Judge Howard Manning Jr. that threatened the closing of schools with passing rates lower than 55 percent.
The New Schools Project — a partnership among the foundation, the Office of the Governor and leaders of North Carolina’s major educational sectors – relies on two main strategies to improve high schools, Habit says.
One involves transforming existing large schools, where students too often feel anonymous and study outdated curricula, into smaller, more personalized academies that more deliberately prepare them for college and careers.
The other approach creates new schools on the campuses of existing two- and four-year colleges where students can earn transferable college credits while completing high school.
“It’s a strategy to accelerate students who are first-generation college attenders,” Habit says of the so-called “Learn and Earn” schools or early colleges.
By this fall, about 60 schools created or redesigned through the New Schools Project will have opened statewide.
By 2008, leaders expect there to be about 150, divided evenly between smaller high schools and early colleges.
The Gates Foundation recently awarded the project another $10 million, and North Carolina lawmakers so far have invested about $20 million.
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