School starts early, for some

Most area schools will begin classes Aug. 25-26, but some Catawba County students have been hitting the books for weeks. As these particular high school students kick off their 2011-12 year a little earlier than their peers, they will not only be taking high school courses, but collegiate classes as well.

Students at several area “early colleges” got back into the swing of learning in early August – something school officials says matches the collegiate schedule and has certain benefits.

University Christian High School, a private school, has a partnership with Lenoir Rhyne University and is located just a walk from its campus inside St. Andrews Lutheran Church in Hickory. Though students here go to school for 180 days like other area students, the early start allows University Christian High (UCH) students to take mid-term exams before Christmas break, said Jerry Willard, UCH principal.

“They have to get their 90 days in before mid-term exams,” Willard said.

“Because of the early state date, they can start the second semester after Christmas break with a start fresh.”

Area public schools do not have the same ability. The state mandates that schools within the Catawba County Schools and Newton-Conover Schools systems start later in August, which does not allow them to get in 90 days before Christmas break. Further, students in those systems must take their mid-term exams after a two-week Christmas break.

“The schedule and starting school early has a benefit in the long run,” Willard said. “We are basically starting two weeks early and getting out two weeks earlier.”

UCH, which serves about 31 students, charges a tuition fee, but Willard said his students take college classes for a fraction of the tuition cost at Lenoir Rhyne. UCH students can start taking college courses after their sophomore year if they have at least a 3.5 Grade Point Average.

“Our students are competing with students in China and India,” he said. “I want my kids to be able to compete for the good jobs in the future. You look at China, they have 500 million honors students – that’s 200 million more people than our whole country. Our kids have to have a jump start and have the ability to compete, and our kids are taking real college classes in high school.”

UCH is not the only area high school that starts early to match the college calendar. Students at Challenger Early College High School started classes Aug. 3 because they, too, take college classes throughout the year.

Challenger, located on the campus of Catawba Valley Community College, is a public school funded by state and private entities that tries to “accelerate” how fast students move through the system, said Challenger Principal Heather Benfield.

At Challenger, Benfield said students take “college classes in the morning and high school courses in the afternoon.”

“From the time they walk in our doors, they are a freshman at Challenger and a freshman at CVCC,” Benfield said, adding that the school’s partnership with CVCC allows students to work mostly heterogeneously with the community college.

Challenger opened six years ago and is one of 77 early colleges in North Carolina, which contains 25 percent of the nation’s total early colleges.

The schools are designed so that low-income youth, first-generation college-goers, English language learners, students of color, and other young people underrepresented in higher education can simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an Associate’s degree or up to two years of credit toward a Bachelor’s degree—tuition free, according to the Early College High School Initiative’s website,

Early colleges target an at-risk student base because national statistics present data that those students are less likely to graduate from high school or obtain a college diploma, according to the website. Thus, early college leaders feel that the data calls for “radical interventions to increase the number of low-income young people gaining postsecondary credentials.”

Because Challenger is aligned with the community college calendar, it starts the school year early and ends early. Like UCH, they, too, take exams before Christmas break – something Benfield said the students enjoy.

“Our students love it because there is a hard stop and start,” she said.

Because past graduates of Challenger are just now graduating from college, Benfield said it is too early to formally calculate the success of the school. She said Challenger does track its graduates, though, and said feedback from past students is positive.

“They are doing well and telling us they feel more prepared,” she said.

“They already know how to read a syllabus, get around and do time management.”