Teens get a head start on their future

BY DAVID BRADLEY, News + Record Staff
Posted 3/8/19

SILER CITY — As the sun was going down in Siler City on a recent Thursday evening, the future was about to get brighter for a select few young high school students — rising 9th-graders — …

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Teens get a head start on their future

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SILER CITY — As the sun was going down in Siler City on a recent Thursday evening, the future was about to get brighter for a select few young high school students — rising 9th-graders — seeking one of the coveted open slots at the Chatham School of Science and Engineering.

Since its opening three years ago, the school has been providing a two-year course of study at the high school level before its graduates transfer to take college classes at the Pittsboro campus of Central Carolina Community College. Students focus on science and engineering classes, and achieve an associate degree with college transfer ability.

Some 50 interviews were taking place to select 30 students to fill open slots at the school as its first group of students transitions from the School of Science and Engineering to the Central Carolina Community College.

“We’ve gone from our first year, with a small number of eight kids in the program, to now, with this new class coming in, we’ll be over 100 kids,” said Bobby Dixon, the school’s principal.

A smaller student body allows a smaller student-to-teacher ratio, he said. More care and attention can be devoted to the needs of the individual student in small class size.

Computer science and engineering are part of the curriculum, but there are those with a different plan.

“The focus is on science and engineering, but also we have students who want a jump start on getting into college,” said Fae Goodman, who works as college liaison between the high school and CCCC. She said that some of the students may “have an interest in the humanities or social sciences.”

A standard high school in Chatham County offers college prep classes, advanced placement, or dual-language programs, but the School of Innovation — the Chatham County Schools’ site which hosts the School of Science and Engineering — offers classes that will result in an associates degree. That is what makes the program unique, and desirable for students who want to take a different path.

“What we offer is actual college,” Dixon said. “We offer an actual associates degree, so that when our kids graduate, they will graduate as a college transfer. Which means they’ll finish with 60 college credits, transfer credits, which are accepted at any of the North Carolina public universities.”

The credits can be transferred to any of North Carolina’s public universities because of matriculation agreements. Students who graduate from the program don’t have to worry about the next step to a degree.

“Any student that graduates from our program is guaranteed acceptance at one of those universities, depending on which ones they choose, and which ones that they qualify for,” Dixon said.

The first step is qualifying for one of the 30 available slots. Interviews are a part of that process, and hopeful students at the interview time had already been working toward acceptance, showing their grades and showcasing other qualifications. Impressing the leaders of the school was the next step, but there isn’t a cut-and-dried group of factors to get in. The school isn’t looking only for straight-A students.

“We’re not necessarily looking for academically gifted students,” Dixon said. “We’re looking for students who have the determination and the will and drive to work hard. Because it is a difficult task to take high school at the same time as you are taking a college course. Many of the college courses satisfy high school credits, so instead of taking a high school history class, you would take a college history class that would satisfy as school credit, but also earn you college credit. So it takes a student who wants to do their best and they want to put forth the effort.”

The transition to becoming a college student before the age of 18 is not an easy one, but Goodman serves as a guide for the students. It’s more than being a coach, she said. She teaches them how to be a college student, and she functions as a guide to her students in the ways of college life.

“I come over here to teach them how to take a college course,” Goodman said. “Before they have to take one that’s high stakes. I’m a resident on the Pittsboro campus. I am the advisor, counselor, coach, and chief harasser of our students over there. So when they come over for their junior year, I’m the person they see all the time who’s kind of keeping an eye on them, to shepherding them through the process. We watch them like a hawk.”

Goodman said that one of the most important things to remember is that the students are still young people who need support.

“But we find when we give them room to grow into the role of being a college student,” she said, ”they do very well with that. We follow them very closely.”

Deciding on a field of study is part of that process of personal growth, and part of Goodman’s job is to show students the tools available to make those important decisions.

“We try to give as many tools to work through that process on their own of thinking on their own and also some structured work in one of their preparatory classes to get them ready for that,” Goodman said.

When the students apply themselves, follow the programs and put forth the effort, the results will show.

“You know you have a high-flying student who does very well in high school, but can then translate that into a college course and prove that, ‘Hey, I’m a high school student, but, I can still hang with the college kids,’” said Dixon. “‘I can take this course, and I can do well with the rigor, and perform and excel.’”

As the students adapt to their new environment, the students get suggestions about how to be in the new environment, and to change from previous behavior patterns.

“They’ll know you are a high school student if you act like one,” Goodman said. “It’s super fun watching the students learn how to be adults in a practical way.”

Current students at the school were the ambassadors for the night’s interview event, and they had positive words to say about the school and their future.

“I liked the idea of getting a jump start on my college and also really liked the fact that there was a smaller environment,” said Kayleigh Smith, 15. “I think it helped me to grow as much as possible when I can have a one on one situation with everyone.”

Smith is focusing on law as a potential future.

“Right now I want to go into law, and become an attorney,” Smith said. “I’m already part of the teen court program, and that’s something I really want to do.”

“There’s always going be a path for students who are motivated, to go a little faster,” said Goodman. “Our Chatham County students are getting their feet on a path already well trodden.”

Michelle Teague, from Bennett, was applying for one of the 30 openings. Her mother, Christina Teague, was nervous about the process, because no one has been selected from Bennett before.

Michelle is interested in studying things in her comfort zone, such as reading, and wants to improve her math skills. Her preferred field of study is genetic sciences.

When asked about her future, Michelle said, “I think it might be a little bit brighter for me, considering that I’ll have a little bit of help with what I’m gonna do.”

Emma Dickerson, 15, is another student and ambassador for the program at the school. While talking about her experience at the school of science and engineering, she shared her belief that the school offers classes that her other high school didn’t.

“It’s a lot better than what I would have gone to,” Dickerson said. “I like the smaller environment and the different opportunities here. Here I know everybody; it feels like a family.”

Dickerson said that the classes that she can take at the school are also an improvement over the standard high school curriculum, with computer sciences offered, as well as health and college prep.

Evy and Mark Taylor’s daughter, Lily, is applying for the school. She enjoys dancing, but her parents know that there aren’t as many extracurricular activities in the curriculum as there would be at a standard high school.

“She’s so serious in math and academics that I think it will be enough for her,” Evy Taylor said. “We think she’ll be happy.”

One of the changes in education in the past several years has been the push toward having more women receiving training in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The school is completely on board with the concept.

“We provide opportunities for boys and girls,” Dixon said. “Over the past three years we’ve had an increase in enrollment in young ladies, which is fantastic. We have connected some of our young ladies with North Carolina School of Science and Math, and they take some online classes. We have one of our young ladies who was awarded the Rising Star Women in Technology award.”

Students being admitted into the Chatham School of Science and Engineering will be notified this week.

In its three short years of existence, its students have done well, Dixon said, praising two who were invited to be a part of Phi Beta Kappa, the national academic honor society.

The program is free.

“It costs parents nothing,” said Dixon. “So if you have a high school student who could graduate with 60 credit hours of college and most college degree programs require over 120 hours or more, and you’ve just saved your parents two years of tuition. Which is a fantastic opportunity!”

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