From Tamar Lewin, The New York Times:

RAEFORD, N.C. – Precious Holt, a 12th grader with dangly earrings and a SpongeBob pillow, climbs on the yellow school bus and promptly falls asleep for the hour-plus ride to Sandhills Community College.

When the bus arrives, she checks in with a guidance counselor and heads off to a day of college classes, blending with older classmates until 4 p.m., when she and the other seniors from SandHoke Early College High School gather for the ride home.

There is a payoff for the long bus rides: The 48 SandHoke seniors are in a fast-track program that allows them to earn their high-school diploma and up to two years of college credit in five years – completely free.

Until recently, most programs like this were aimed at affluent, overachieving students – a way to keep them challenged and give them a head start on college work. But the goal is quite different at SandHoke, which enrolls only students whose parents do not have college degrees.

Here, and at North Carolina’s other 70 early-college schools, the goal is to keep at-risk students in school by eliminating the divide between high school and college.

“We don’t want the kids who will do well if you drop them in Timbuktu,” said Lakisha Rice, the principal. “We want the ones who need our kind of small setting.”

[…]

Most of the early college high schools are on college campuses, but some stand alone. Some are four years, some five. Most serve a low-income student body that is largely black or Latino. But all are small, and all offer free college credits as part of the high school program.

“In 27 years as a college president, this is just about the most exciting thing I’ve been involved in,” said Rick Dempsey, the president of Sandhills. “We picked these kids out of eighth grade, kids who were academically representative at a school with very low performance. We didn’t cherry-pick them. Their performance has been so startling that you see what high expectations can do.”

Initially, the prospect of two years of college at no cost was less appealing to Ms. Holt than to her mother, Simone Dean, an Army mechanic at nearby Fort Bragg.

“I didn’t want to do it, because my middle school friends weren’t applying,” Ms. Holt said. “I cried, but my mother made me do it.

“The first year, I didn’t like it, because my friends at the regular high school were having pep rallies and actual fun, while I had all this homework. But when I look back at my middle school friends, I see how many of them got pregnant or do drugs or dropped out. And now I’m excited, because I’m a year ahead.”

Continue to the full article at The New York Times website.