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East Carolina University's program coordinator for Early College High School, Sharon Collins, standing, assists high school student Gabriella Pleasant with course content delivered online. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

College courses help high school students get ahead

By Karen Shugart

Before enrolling in East Carolina University’s Early College High School, William Harrell hoped one day to attend community college. Now he’s dead-set on a four-year degree and hopes to teach.

“I guess I was sort of intimidated by college,” admitted Harrell, a 16-year-old junior at North Pitt High School.

That’s no longer the case. By the time Harrell enters ECU, he will likely have earned 24 credit hours in subjects including English and sociology. Harrell, like 31 other students enrolled in the program, is getting a head start on the college experience for free.

The early college program, a partnership between ECU, Pitt Community College and Pitt County Schools, lets students stay in their high schools and take online courses taught by ECU. Core subjects, as well as electives such as Web design, are taught remotely via the virtual reality world of Second Life. Students even receive a laptop for use while in the program.

The program provides an opportunity for students who have the potential for college success but who may otherwise fall through the cracks. Students chosen for the program come from a variety of backgrounds, program coordinator Sharon Collins said. Some are high achievers, while others may have wondered if they were college-bound.

So far, the students are proving they are: Eleven of the program’s 18 seniors have been admitted to ECU already, and the remaining students plan to attend college as well. Three seniors are Teaching Fellows Finalists. “They really are industrious students, and they’ve all done well,” Collins said.

The students’ achievements mirror outcomes found elsewhere. According to the Early High School Initiative, a national partnership, programs across the country are yielding success stories. In 2007, more than 900 U.S. students graduated from 17 early college programs. Of those, 65 percent were accepted to four-year colleges, while others chose to complete an associate’s degree. More than 85 percent graduated with substantial college credit.

For now, ECU’s ECHS enrolls Pitt County students only. Provost Marilyn Sheerer, however, would like enrollment to expand to include students throughout eastern North Carolina.

High school student Priscilla Ensley enjoys online courses taught through the Early College High School.
“This concept represents our hope for the future – to indeed spread the model to many of the local high schools throughout the East,” Sheerer said. “ECU, as an Engaged University, has outreach and service at its very core.”

Funding for the program is far from assured. Collins said ECU officials envisioned state funding would support the program, but those dollars have dried up as North Carolina’s fiscal climate worsened.

Other N.C. schools have early college programs, but they require students to leave their home high schools and head to a college campus. ECU’s program uniquely lets students take courses online. “Here they get to stay with their friends. They get to graduate with their friends. We think that’s a plus,” Collins said.

Pitt County Schools Superintendent Beverly Reep is excited about the ECHS’s potential. “Our ability to connect them to university education and experiences through technology has been amazing,” Reep said. “… The successes of our students prove they have the potential for higher education, and this confidence is most inspiring to both the students and to all of us who work with them.”

While the students interact mostly online, they have learned about on-campus life. They visited ECU for orientation. Through Second Life, they have met staff from ECU offices, including the registrar’s office, career services and admissions. They are led by faculty members who have transitioned their courses into Second Life and altered their teaching styles to fit into the virtual world.

The seniors who joined the program when it began will enter college with 18 credits, while juniors may have as many as 24 credit hours. “It makes me feel a lot more secure about handling college work,” said India Hankins, a 16-year-old junior at J.H. Rose High School, who plans to be a gynecologist.

Gabriella Pleasant, a 16-year-old junior at Rose High, said she felt more prepared for the rigor of higher education. “It’s going to require a lot more studying when I get into college,” said Pleasant, who hopes to be a detective or private investigator.

With college costs rising at a time when many incomes are not, the free credit hours make sense to students and their parents.

Priscilla Ensley, a 16-year-old junior, said her family is thrilled that she’s taking college courses while enrolled in Rose High. “They love it,” Ensley said. “They think it’s really good for me.”

William Frizzell, a 19-year-old senior at North Pitt High who hopes to be an attorney, is happy he doesn’t have to pay for his college courses. The classes give him flexibility, he said, and the virtual-reality classroom is easy to navigate. “This is how all school should be taught,” Frizzell said.

Collins said the high school students’ grades are higher in most of their courses than the grades of regular first-year college students. “We are very excited about the program and really want to continue it,” she said.


This story appeared originally in the Feb. 26, 2010 issue of Pieces of Eight. An archived version of that issue is available at