Dr. Evelyn Edney and her faculty like to joke about the 79,000 hats on the wall of her office, one for each duty she must perform as head of a small but growing—in both size and impact—charter school in Dover.
Since 2015, Edney has led the Early College High School at Delaware State University, a public charter high school where students get a true taste (and more) of the college experience. Following their exploratory freshman year, students begin taking bona fide college classes at next-door-neighbors Del State, where they can accumulate up to 60 college credits in addition to a whole lot of learning.
Edney preaches about the “power of place”—that is, the stark reality of entering a college classroom as a high school student, sitting next to older college kids and absorbing college-level coursework. “They have this realization that they can do it,” she says.
That power is paying off. At ECHS (which the Rodel Foundation helped establish), students are outpacing state averages in SAT language arts scores with a high population of low-income and minority students. In 2014 the school earned a Charter School Performance Fund award from the state.
As Edney and the ECHS crew prepared for their first-ever graduation ceremonies, we took the opportunity to ask a few questions.
What can you tell us about the Early College High School @ DSU model? What makes it different than the so-called typical high school experience?
At ECHS, there are two campuses—one, a Freshmen Academy and the other, an actual college campus. A typical day in the Freshmen Academy involves a half an hour breakfast, then four 90-minute periods that include core courses and electives with a 30-minute lunch, and finally a one-hour Advisory/activity period. The academics are broken into semesters to mirror the college.
On the college campus, DSU to be precise, the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders are housed. Sophomores are mainly still taking high school classes, and juniors and seniors are mainly taking college courses (12-15 credits per semester).
Why focus on three areas—Agribusiness, Forensic Biology and Community Health—in particular?
During the first year of the school, the focus was STEM, and those were the chosen pathways for students. But after some time, students developed interests outside of the STEM focus, so the ECHS administration approached DSU about changing the STEM focus to a STEM+ focus. They have, since then, allowed the students to “major” in 41 out of the 42 majors and concentrations that DSU has to offer (with Aviation being the only holdout due to students not being old enough to fly a plane).
Who are the ECHS students? Why do they enroll here versus another school?
The 420 students at ECHS come from all three counties in the State of Delaware. They enroll in the program to get a “leg up” in being afforded the opportunity to take up to 60 college credits while in high school. There is no program of its kind for miles around. Parents are also thrilled about the potential savings on college tuition.
Why is it important for students to have access to college-level coursework while they are still in high school?
Students should be challenged every day in school. Most schools have somewhere between 24-30 credits. Even with that, there are gaping holes in students’ schedules, particularly in the senior year. Students should be challenged in that year and have more access to college courses through dual enrollment programs. Not having access to college-level coursework is a travesty, but it happens every day.
We know there can be barriers for students to take college-level coursework in high school. What are some of the supports that ECHS has developed to help students find success?
Turning 14 year-olds into college students overnight could be a nightmare if there was not a way to monitor their progress and determine which students needed the most support. In 2015, ECHS school leaders developed the ECHS College Readiness Rubric to do just that. It measures the whole student each grade reporting period in the factors of grades, attendance, behavior, scores on larger assessments, and teacher recommendations.
The ECHS College Readiness Rubric allows students to self-govern, so that they can see their strengths and areas for development. The ECHS staff can do the same. This is used to identify students who need more supports in place. That comes in the form of a Response to Intervention (RtI) class, homework help, tutoring, etc.
How is ECHS supporting students to think about college majors and careers that they might want to pursue?
There are two ways that ECHS works with students regarding majors/careers. First, having DSU as a partner is wonderful place to start students thinking about the majors/careers they want to pursue. They have worked with our students in many ways to provide experiences that shed light on different careers and about the majors. ECHS students have been invited to participate in science labs, an SAP software competition, math and ecology integration, and other academic experiences. In addition, ECHS students have been able to participate in the DSU band and DSU chorus, mentorships with DSU students in varying majors.
The second way that ECHS supports students to think about college majors and careers is through the Advisory program. The role of the advisor is to assist the student in making reasoned choices, acquiring needed skills, and serving as the “reality check” that will make college possible. The “hidden curriculum” of the Advisory program is to create a situation where the student has connected on a much deeper level with at least one person in the ECHS school community.
The Advisory program is a four-year program. In the ninth grade year, the focus is on college readiness, so students spend the year learning the skills needed to become college ready. The 10th grade year is devoted to choosing a program of study. Junior and senior years are devoted to working on a Capstone Project, a study of some topic—inquiry-based or problem-based—within the major.
How do high school students usually react to taking courses with college students?
At first ECHS students are completely frightened about taking college courses with college students, but after a while, they realize they can hold their own and they are fine. ECHS students tend to do well in the classes with very few of them failing college courses during the last four years.
ECHS talks a lot of about 21st skills that all students will need as future leaders. Can you give us an idea of what that means and how you’re helping to build those skills?
ECHS promotes the following 21st skills within the Advisory program, positive behavior support program (Hornet PRIDE, Catch it!), and through project-based learning: problem solving, creativity, analytic thinking, collaboration, communication, ethics, action, and accountability. The Advisory program allows students to collaborate and communicate while learning college readiness skills. The Hornet PRIDE, Catch it! PBS program helps students with accountability for one’s own actions and words. Students also learn problem solving, creativity, analytic thinking, as well as the other skills through project-based learning.
In December 2017, we released a landscape analysis on Supporting Postsecondary Success in Delaware. Through this research, 54 percent of students indicated that parents/family members have been most helpful in preparing them for their future (college/career)—a much higher percentage than teachers or counselors. How do you encourage parent and family engagement?
Parent and Family engagement looks different in high school than it does in other schools. It’s not about mom and dad sitting in the back of Johnny’s classroom because he is acting up in class. It’s about having a quiet place to study, a designated time to study, monitoring peer groups, etc. It’s about showing up whenever you can and partnering with the school by monitoring school work. ECHS invites parents to partner. There is a strong PTSA. Because parents come from all three counties, the PTSA meetings rotate between the counties so parents can attend. Also, there is Zoom Conferencing available for all meetings so that parents can attend without physically being there.
Parents are on the ECHS Board. They help to make the important decisions about the school.
Tell us about some of your students and what excites you about their futures.
Willow Bowen and Christy Malone are the No. 1 and No. 2 students in the senior classes respectively. They are attending Stanford and University of Pennsylvania in the fall. They have earned over 55 college credits (or more by the end of the semester), and their futures are so bright because of all they accomplished at ECHS. They have all A’s and B’s on their report cards with all A’s in their college classes. This is what ECHS is all about!
Then there are the students who did not start out being college ready who worked hard to get there; countless numbers. We are so excited for them!