Story By Denice Patterson
Photography By Kristin Goode
Dozens of well-dressed teenagers file out of the yellow school buses on the campus of Brunswick Community College. One young man straightens his tie while another shifts under the weight of his bulging backpack. It is Dress for Success Wednesday, and the 95 freshmen at the Brunswick County Early College High School have certainly met the mark. As teachers greet the students who are shuffling into the classrooms of building C, every Firebird gets down to the business of the day — a rigorous and relevant academic experience.
At the Brunswick County Early College High School the students work on their state-required high school coursework, take college entrance exams and get their feet wet in college classes during the first two years. By their junior and senior years, they attend at least one high school class, but the remainder of their schedule is filled with classes at Brunswick Community College (BCC), for which they earn college credit. In the fifth year, the students are called “graduates” and they complete the rest of their college courses at BCC. Students have the opportunity to graduate in four to five years with both their high school diploma and an associate’s degree in art or science. In addition to coursework, each student is required to complete 10 hours of community service per month.
Dr. Vicky Snyder, principal at the Early College, is a no-nonsense leader with a contagious smile. The former assistant principal of North Brunswick High School and 2010 Brunswick County Principal of the Year helped bring the vision of the Early College High School to fruition and opened the doors to the first freshman class in 2005. A dynamic presence on campus, she greets students by name, gives encouraging hugs and easily enters into conversations with students about things they are interested in — from current events to a good book to hunting.
The school began with 80 students and five teachers sharing the campus of Brunswick Academy. In 2006 the school began to partner with BCC, busing students to their campus. In 2009 the Early College moved onto the BCC campus and since then has occupied the second floor of building C as well as two classrooms on the first floor.
This Brunswick County Early College High School is one of 70 in the state and 280 in the United States. The nontraditional high school program is designed to motivate students by combining a condensed, rigorous education and is intended to offer an academic opportunity to the under-represented populations of the community. In its seventh year, the high school has graduated two classes to date — 21 students in 2010 and 59 in 2011. Alumni have gone on to complete college degrees at universities throughout the country, as well as join the military and enter the local workforce here in Brunswick County.
For the 2011-12 school year, the high school accepted the largest freshman class to date — 95 students from a pool of more than 200 applicants, also a record for the school.
One key to the success of the school is the self-imposed continuous improvement process. Goal setting is taken very seriously. Each freshman brings his or her parents or guardians into school to develop a five-year plan together. School Counselor Secanda Seifred guides the students through the required coursework and college entry tests. The five-year plan is a roadmap for the student.
“We map out the courses the student should take each semester based on their goals and areas of interest,” Seifred explains.
Every summer a team from the school attends the New Schools Project conference, during which they participate in continuing education and goal-setting activities. Since 2007 the faculty has been invited to present topics at the conference each year, a real tribute to their success in Brunswick County.
Cheri Skaggs joined the Early College as assistant principal in 2009. She shares why she believes the school is so successful: “We set our goals, we meet our goals and then we step back and see room for growth.” Once the goals are met, the bar is set a little higher — such as adding new courses.
Among the many thriving concepts at the school, the Accountability class has been the great “Aha” moment for everyone. New in 2010, the course brings former students back to campus every other Friday morning to discuss their work in the community.
“We found a way to keep the connection with those older students who spend most of their time away from us in college classes,” Skaggs informs.
Another key to the school’s success, Skaggs says, is relationships.
“We really treat each other and our students as if we were family and we really try to make learning fun here,” says Skaggs.
Bryan Tunstall agrees whole-heartedly with Skaggs. He is a social studies teacher who also teaches the Accountability course.
“Every teacher here makes learning fun,” he says. His blue eyes sparkle as he confides later, “If I had learned math the way our teachers teach it, I would have been a math major!”
Raising the bar even a little higher this year, the school has added a STEM program for the freshman class. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math and it is a federal initiative designed to increase the number of college graduates receiving four-year degrees in these subjects. The STEM program is both rigorous and relevant — students were asked to decide what local problems they would like to investigate and then find solutions to those problems. In Brunswick County, the fields of agriscience and biotechnology are the two main employers, so the students were invited to work in these areas.
“Our students are looking at topics such as childhood obesity, school lunches, composting, beach erosion and the seafood industry,” says Tunstall, also a STEM coordinator at Early College. “They are learning that diseases are transferred among species and see that fish populations in the area are getting smaller. These students are also learning that local fish farms can help fill that void in the seafood industry and they are studying the possibilities.”
STEM is integrated into the core requirements of the high school, so in addition to the science and math components of the projects, students research their ideas and write papers for composition class and use civics class to determine the economic impact of their ideas. Nearly all of the faculty members will become STEM teachers in one way or another over the next few years.
The STEM projects are already having a positive impact on the local community.
“We have designed three composting projects so far,” says Claire McLaughlin, science teacher and STEM co-coordinator. Two of the composting projects were introduced earlier this year at the Early Childhood Center and the Horticultural Department, both on the BCC campus.
One of the biggest challenges for the school to date has been continuing to grow the program within the budget, without adding more staff. Their goals include increasing the number of graduates who apply to four-year universities, increasing the number of students completing the associate degree program and increasing the impact on the community.
“Challenges or not, giving these kids the opportunity to succeed, teaching our Firebirds to soar, is why we are here,” says Snyder.
The school is certainly living up to its motto: “Success is our Tradition.”