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2009 November 2 - 12:00 am

TRACKING TRENDS: Chief of NC Education Panel Calls for Improved Early College Programs

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina must get better at creating specialty high schools and drawing up courses that match the needs of growing businesses in regions of the state, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton said in kicking off a new state commission.

The joint legislative Joining Our Businesses and Schools Commission, led by Dalton, began what’s designed as a nearly three-year effort to expand “early college” high schools and align them more closely with high-in-demand careers.

For example, according to Dalton, a coastal or mountain high school with cooking and hospitality classes may help students win jobs in the tourism industry.

“The early college program has had success so far, but I think it needs to be a little more focused,” said Dalton, a former senator who with the commission is taking on his first high-profile issue since becoming lieutenant governor in January. “We are more likely to attract 21st century jobs.”

North Carolina already has 70 early college schools — the most in any state nationwide. Dalton was the chief sponsor of the 2003 bill that helped create the early college schools with the backing of then-Gov. Mike Easley.

They provide technical or academic programs designed to help students obtain both a high school diploma and a college credential or an associate degree with only one extra year of high school, and without paying for college tuition.

The schools often concentrate on studies for broader, growing fields statewide such as biotechnology and health care so students can get a job when they graduate if they choose. Two-thirds of the early college schools open reported no dropouts during the 2007-08 school year, the most recent figures available, according to a report presented to the Legislature.

Other high schools have focused aggressively on math and science classes to prepare students for four-year colleges through teaching techniques that emphasize critical thinking and confidence-building.

“At first I was a follower. Now I make my own decisions,” said Justin Harmon, 16, a junior at Bertie School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. “It keeps us focused. It keeps us motivated.”

Members of the panel, including lawmakers and education and business leaders, said the state needs to do a better job creating school curricula based on the needs of the seven economic development regions in the state.

“Depending on the job market, you should tweak the programs,” said Swadesh Chatterjee, a native of India, former owner of a Wake County industrial instrumentation company and consultant in Cary. “Our goal is not to just reduce the dropout rate.”

The JOBS commission’s charge is ambitious. Lawmakers who approved the bill creating the panel directed the commission to recommend by March four potential career areas that could serve the employment and workforce preparation needs of the state and its seven regions. Commission members plan to visit each region over the next eight months.

The State Board of Education would develop at least one specialty high school in each of the regions as early as next fall and no later than fall 2011.

The commission also heard from state Superintendent
of Public Instruction June Atkinson, community college President Scott Ralls, and North Carolina Chamber chief executive Lew Ebert.

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

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