Turning around struggling high schools is the toughest work in education reform. Research found that a $3.5 billion federal program meant to fix the nation’s lowest performing schools – which focused disproportionately on high schools – did little to improve student achievement. In this three-part series, The Hechinger Report is visiting high schools that have beaten the long odds to learn what’s behind their success in improving graduation rates and sending more students to college.
In this small, rural town situated among the farmland and rolling hills of southeastern Ohio, residents of a certain age worry about the younger generation. They recall a time when industrial jobs provided a solid path to the middle class for those with a high school diploma and a willingness to work hard. They know those days aren’t coming back.
“The mindset 15 to 20 years ago was you could just graduate high school and land a job at one of the factories,” says village mayor Jay Jackson. “But a lot of those jobs have moved on and the ones that are here require some higher education.”
Meadowbrook High School in Byesville, part of the Rolling Hills school district, operates in a county beset by declining population and low-wage jobs. The median household income is 24 percent lower than that of the nation as a whole and fewer than 14 percent of adults have a four-year college degree. School officials say that 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a measure of poverty.
Yet Meadowbrook, which serves 490 students from across a sprawling 128-square-mile district, is thriving when it comes to graduation rates and participation in higher-ed. In just a few years, the school has managed to create a culture in which going to college is becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Administration and faculty trace this emphasis on higher education to the school’s participation in a novel cooperative effort with other rural school districts across the state. The Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, as it’s called, began with 21 separate districts coming together in 2010 to pool resources and secure outside funding on a scale that the individual districts could not have managed on their own. The result is a model for how far-flung and sparsely populated schools can provide rural students with the same access to postsecondary opportunities as their urban and suburban peers.
“We’ve seen tremendous success,” says district superintendent Ryan Caldwell. “We think the impact is going to be tremendous for this community.”
At Meadowbrook, the higher-ed focus is evident: from incoming freshmen who speak confidently to visitors about their college plans, to the vibrant classrooms set aside for the 38 percent of juniors and seniors who are participating in a dual-enrollment program this fall – taking university courses for full credit alongside their high school classes.
Currently, 92 percent of Meadowbrook students graduate on time – the school’s highest rate in recent memory and 11 points above the state average. And from 2013 to 2016, the number of its graduates enrolling in associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs rose dramatically, from 28 percent to 47 percent, according to school officials. (By comparison, data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows only 59 percent of rural high school graduates typically go on to college.) The school, which is still working on improvement in other academic areas, is offering its students something they haven't had previously.
From long shot to reality
For Aaron Twigg, a 19-year-year old who graduated from Meadowbrook last year, college seemed like a long shot at best. “I blew off the first two years of high school,” he acknowledges. Mr. Twigg, who grew up in a single-parent household, said the expense associated with going to college made it seem like something he’d never be able to do.
At the start of his senior year, thanks to Meadowbrook’s in-house college program and relationships with teachers who “expected more out of me,” Twigg enrolled in college composition and literature classes. After doing well in them, he began for the first time to consider college as a real possibility.
Ohio has long sought to boost college enrollment by letting high school students take college classes, at no cost, before they graduate. Since 1989 the dual-enrollment program has been open to any student able to pass an assessment test. Textbooks are also provided free of charge. The latest iteration of the program is called College Credit Plus (CCP), and supporters say it provides a crucial pathway to college for those who otherwise could not afford it.
The program’s funding model, however, effectively shuts out rural students, because the high schools must pay for the classes. The conservative-led state legislature chose to fund CCP by making a student’s local district pay for tuition and books, with funds coming out of the high school’s per-pupil budget. Critics argue that the cost is prohibitive in sparsely populated communities.
“In rural areas there’s often not the tax base you find in an urban or suburban school to fund additional programs,” says Lavina Grandon, co-founder and board president of the Rural Community Alliance, a nonprofit school advocacy organization.
As a result, the dual-enrollment initiative is one that many rural schools would love to embrace but can’t afford.
“On the one hand we really encourage kids to get college credit, but on the other hand it’s a financial disincentive for school districts,” says Jim Mahoney, former executive director of Battelle for Kids, a Columbus-based education nonprofit that established the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative. “In Ohio, we have dramatically shifted a lot of the tax burden for education spending away from the state and onto local school districts,” he notes.
Or, as Superintendent Caldwell puts it, “CCP has the potential to bankrupt a school district.”
Meadowbrook spends $15,000-$20,000 per year on college texts, says principal Molly Kaplet, adding that rapidly changing curricula at some colleges has meant that those textbooks may only be of use for a year or two.
As of 2016, Ohio high schools are charged $166 per credit hour when a student attends classes on a college campus. At a rural school like Meadowbrook, which already receives less per-student funding than the state average, sending significant numbers of students to a college campus isn’t financially feasible. The state allows a 50 percent rate reduction if the high school provides the classes in its own building – but that requires having staff that’s certified to teach college-level courses, a rarity in most rural schools.
The cost made collaboration a necessity, says Superintendent Caldwell, who embraced the idea not only of applying for grants as a group as the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, but also of sharing resources among the member districts, regardless of proximity. “We’ve had to be very innovative and aggressive,” he says.
Caldwell also notes the importance of sharing college-level certified teachers among districts. “One may have a math teacher. We have a Spanish teacher. Another may have a business teacher. They may be all over the region but we’re all committed to sharing them so we can offer a full college curriculum to our students.”
A sense of urgency
The urgency to provide dual-enrollment classes on site came not just from the financial savings. Principal Kaplet found it difficult to create a culture of academic achievement when her school’s most motivated learners were spending the bulk of their time on a college campus. “You’re losing a connection with those students,” she says. “We saw our best and brightest students leaving.”
So, in 2013, the school embarked on an ambitious mission. Funded by a $15 million state grant awarded to the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative and shared among its member districts, Meadowbrook decided to convert its seldom-used library into Colt College, a facility built for its dual-enrollment program. Named for the school’s mascot, Colt College is a bright and welcoming collection of classrooms equipped with computers, distance-learning technology, and a lounge area – all for the exclusive use of its dual-enrollment students.
“We spent a lot of money on this because when you walk through those doors it’s unlike any other part of our school,” says Caldwell. “It feels different. It looks different. It’s like you’re in college. And that’s what we want our kids to experience.”
Although it’s housed on the Meadowbrook campus, students from across the region benefit by taking distance-learning classes led by instructors at Colt.
Investing in teachers, too
A second grant, also awarded to the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, secured funds that Caldwell uses to pay for teachers to earn master’s degrees, allowing them to teach the college-level courses. Five years ago, Caldwell notes, Meadowbrook couldn’t even offer an Advanced Placement class because the school had no teachers with the required credentials. Today, the school counts 11 teachers on staff who are certified to teach college classes. They expect to add five more next year.
“I always wanted to teach higher-level history and government,” says Ray Mertz, a social studies teacher who joined Meadowbrook in 2014. During his job interview, Mr. Mertz was asked if he would be willing to go back to school to get a master’s degree, paid for by the school. Mertz jumped at the chance. “This is one of the reasons I came to Meadowbrook,” he says.
Boosted by a dedicated physical space, certified staff, and a concerted effort by administration and faculty to promote Colt College, Meadowbrook’s dual-enrollment population quickly surged. In 2012, the year before Colt College was launched, school officials say that approximately 25 of their students were taking college classes, all of them off-campus. This fall, with 32 courses to choose from, 90 students are taking college classes without leaving the building.
“When our kids started staying,” says Kaplet, “our athletics improved, our clubs improved. The character of our whole building changed. The culture changed. These students were being role models and our younger kids were saying ‘I want to do that.’ ”
“If they hadn’t had Colt College right in the school, I wouldn’t have taken a college class,” says graduate Twigg, noting that in high school he had no access to transportation to make the 30-mile commute to Ohio University Zanesville, one of the nearest campuses offering dual-enrollment classes. Since graduation, Twigg has been working a series of full-time jobs with plans to enroll in Belmont College in Clairsville, Ohio, next spring, applying his Colt College credits toward a two-year welding degree program.
College path more common
Meadowbrook officials say it’s now much more common to see students like senior Brooke Clendenning, from nearby Senecaville, who began ninth grade with plans for college. She is on track to graduate high school with two semesters’ worth of undergraduate studies under her belt. Ms. Clendenning, described by her teachers as highly motivated, settled on the idea of taking early college classes back in middle school and started the dual-enrollment program the summer before her junior year. “For me it’s more fun to come to school,” she says, “because I have the opportunity to get ahead and learn higher-level things.”
But, she notes, the workload increased, “and I would always put off my work until just before the due date.” Having teachers on hand who have known her since freshman year helped.
“They’re learning how to fall on their face with support," explains Kaplet. “In an actual college, they would be on their own.” Such support is important, she says, because poor performance carries steep consequences. State legislators have mandated that any student who gets an F must reimburse the district for the cost of tuition and books.
While Superintendent Caldwell is confident that Meadowbrook's turnaround can be replicated in other communities, he emphasizes that results don’t come without support at the district level and a lot of hard work. In particular, he notes the willingness among the school's staff to go back to earn master's degrees, without any corresponding salary increase.
Meadowbrook has to manage 14 partnerships with outside schools and colleges to make their course offerings a reality, Kaplet points out. “Our counselors,” she explains, “put in an insane amount of hours just communicating with the different colleges on application requirements, getting records in, testing, and placement.”
The payoff, she says, is not just in providing opportunities for motivated students such as Clendenning, but in changing the mindset of students such as Twigg who didn’t even have college on their radar.
“We now have kids taking the [assessment] test who never would have thought about going to college," says Kaplet. "In eighth grade, Aaron [Twigg] was an underachiever. He started applying himself more, took a college class, and is going to be the first kid in his family to go to college.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.