When James Fletcher first walked into a college classroom last year, he was understandably nervous. After all, he was just a high school sophomore.
"Everyone else seemed so intelligent, taking notes," he says. "I was in the back looking silly."
But James, a student at Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) in Ohio, passed the philosophy course with a B-plus. Now, he is eager for more college-level work.
James and other DECA students are in the vanguard of a small but fast-growing school reform effort: helping academically challenged high school students by enrolling them in college-level courses.
They may seem counterintuitive, but early college high schools, as they're known, increase academic rigor while boosting support to help teens succeed.
Usually set at a local community college, they expect that students will take at least some - and often two years' worth - of regular college classes.
Rather than target the brightest students, the schools enroll the disengaged and unprepared, and almost all are in high-poverty, minority-heavy districts.
"You think about the lack of engagement, the high dropout rate, the low college-going rate - something had to happen," says Michael Webb, an associate vice president of the Early College High School Initiative, an umbrella organization.
The modern incarnation of the early college high school began four years ago with LaGuardia Community College's International High School in New York, and the movement is quickly gaining traction. Mr. Webb's group counts 48 early college high schools that began last year, and this year, 64 more will open their doors.
In North Carolina, the governor's "Learn and Earn" program plans to launch 75 early college high schools by 2008. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a powerful force in high-school reform efforts, has put more than $100 million behind the effort.
Because the movement is so new, data is slim. But the results so far are encouraging. The first cohort of LaGuardia students graduate this fall; all 30 are expected to graduate, with college credit, and 23 are on course to earn full two-year associates degrees by next summer.
And teachers say they've seen extraordinary progress among students. Megan Arnold, a social studies and Spanish teacher at DECA, urged one girl who seemed ready to drop out last year to start writing a novel. The girl became reengaged in school and made up months of work that she'd missed. This fall, she tested into a first-year college English class.
The schools are just one in a growing battalion of reform efforts at the high-school level that includes charter schools, small schools, and schools that focus on a specialized niche of students.
Faced with high dropout rates and low college-attendance rates, especially among low-income students, education reformers increasingly see big, traditional schools as part of the problem.
The High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE), released last month by Indiana University, showed low levels of student preparation and interest among the 81,000 students who took the survey. More than half said they had not discussed work with a teacher outside of class, and less than half said they'd opt for the same high school again if given a choice.
Even more disturbing was the disconnect between student aspirations and schoolwork.
While almost all of those surveyed said they planned to attend college, most reported doing fewer than four hours a week of homework. More than a third said they hadn't written a single paper longer than five pages that school year.
"If you take out the uncertain answers, more than 90 percent of students say they're going on to higher education," says Martha McCarthy, director of the HSSSE, noting that national statistics show far fewer will actually enroll, and fewer still will finish college. "There is a big gap in terms of the preparation and the expectations in college."
That preparation gap - and the fact that fewer than 50 percent of African- American, Latino, and native American students who begin ninth grade make it to graduation - was the impetus behind the early college high schools.
The schools are founded on the dual principles of higher expectations and more support - students are tossed into college classes in which they can't possibly succeed. All are situated on or near local college campuses, but many, like DECA, say the real difference in their approach lies in the connections they build with students.
"When our kids become engaged with people, when teachers become their advocates and confidants, then that relationship causes them to tackle more difficult and challenging material," says Judy Hennessey, DECA's principal. "We're absolutely unwilling to sell our kids short."
It can be an uphill battle when a student enters at the second-grade math level, as one DECA student did. His adviser worked with him, got him to spend two or three periods each day focusing on the subject, and the student moved up multiple grade levels that year.
"He realized, 'I'll have to go to college, and take the SAT,' and his understanding of his own educational process was a huge light bulb for him," says Ms Arnold. "One of his major motivations is that he'll be able to take college classes eventually."
At DECA, many of the traditional high school elements are gone. There are no sports, although some students make arrangements with other area high schools, no letter grades (except for college courses), and no traditional years. Instead, students pass "gateways" and demonstrate proficiency in subjects through public exhibitions. Those who attain a degree will have saved two years of college tuition.
Early college high schools are still subject to state and No Child Left Behind testing requirements.
The school's success reinforces research showing that strong mentorships and community are often the keys to keeping kids from dropping out.
Of California schools with unusually low dropout rates, "one common factor was a commitment to giving kids multiple opportunities to succeed," says Daniel Losen, a professor at Harvard's Civil Rights Project and the author of several studies on dropout rates. One school he looked at on the Mexican border found multiple ways for failing students to make up work, through independent studies, after-school work, or summer school.
In the schools that had success, Professor Losen says, "there's a strong commitment from the leadership and the teachers to really having a connection to the kids. There's the sense of not giving up on kids."