The Cape Fear region of North Carolina is one of the fastest-growing parts of the state, with annual population increases rivaling those of Charlotte and Raleigh and a job-growth rate exceeding three percent (compared to 1.6 percent for the nation as a whole). Secondary-school students who wish to participate in Cape Fear’s robust economy would benefit from a course of study that prepares them for local jobs—which is why we have partnered with New Hanover County Schools and Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) to open Southeast Area Technical High School (SEA-Tech), a school where students can earn high-school diplomas, college credits, and/or industry-recognized career credentials geared to local needs.
SEA-Tech is part of North Carolina’s Cooperative Innovative High School (CIHS) program, a network of small high schools affiliated with universities and community colleges that target first-generation college students, students at risk of dropping out of high school, and students who would benefit from accelerated learning opportunities. One of the main attractions of SEA-Tech in particular, and CIHS schools in general, is that students can graduate in five years (that is, staying one year beyond senior year) with an associates’ degree geared to the needs of local industry, or in four years with transferable college credits and/or a certificate in any one of dozens of fields, ranging from coding to cosmetology.
In its first year of operation, from fall 2017 to summer 2018, SEA-Tech welcomed 40 students in grade nine; in the 2018-2019 school year, there will be an additional 45 ninth graders and around 45 tenth graders. For its first two years, SEA-Tech will use empty classrooms on the CFCC campus, while New Hanover County Schools retrofits a permanent building that will be able to accommodate 300 to 400 students as well as modernized equipment and media labs.
Students at SEA-Tech can choose courses of study in seven programs, which roughly correspond to the prevalence of industry in the Cape Fear region: Advanced Manufacturing; Computer and Network Engineering; Health Science and Public Services; Hospitality and Tourism; Residential and Commercial Construction; Small Business and Entrepreneurship; and Transportation and Logistics. Each of these programs includes eight to 10 “career pathways"; for example, a student in the Health Science and Public Services program can obtain a certificate in nursing, early childhood education or phlebotomy, among other offerings. All of the certificate and associate programs are funded by the state, so there is no need for out-of-pocket outlays on the part of students and their families.
Guiding a New High School Through Development and Launch
Our educational experts have been deeply involved in the development and launch of SEA-Tech, primarily at an advisory level. Among other things, we helped draft the partnership agreement between the school district and CFCC, recruited businesses and community members for the school’s advisory board, worked with the district’s executive team to organize the sequence of activities needed to get the school open, trained staff, solicited media coverage, helped the school apply for CIHS status, and reviewed the various courses of study. Our goal is not to stay involved permanently with SEA-Tech in any one capacity, but rather to support the launch of the school, build the skill sets of teachers and administrators, and sustain a general level of excellence.
One of the more unique services we provide is teaching about “implicit bias.” All students accepted into SEA-Tech receive a home visit, in which teachers or administrators get a sense of the student’s family life, support system, and economic circumstances. As Mary Ellen Flannery quotes a teacher in All in the Family: How Teacher Home Visits Can Lead to School Transformation, “When you have a kid walk into class, you just see the kid. But after a home visit, when that student walks into class, you see his aunt, his uncle, the drawing pad that he brought to share with you—it’s a whole picture. I get immeasurable data about what inspires them and motivates them.”
To put it another way, if the person conducting a home visit is unfamiliar with cultural differences and communication styles, he or she may misinterpret the circumstances of the student’s home life and get off on the wrong foot even before the school year begins—while a well-conducted home visit can lay the foundation for stronger student-teacher bonds and a truly individualized high school experience .
Setting a Standard for the High School/Community College Model
Increasingly, school districts around the United States are looking for ways to lower dropout rates, engage at-risk and economically disadvantaged students, and prepare students for viable careers after graduation (with or without going on to a community or four-year college). There are now more than 100 CIHS schools in North Carolina alone, and we are confident that the SEA-Tech model can be widely implemented in other parts of the country—giving students a leg up on an increasingly competitive economy and helping to improve their circumstances later in life.