Students at Whale Branch Early College High School are taking college courses at a rate that has Beaufort County School District officials declaring the program's beginning a success.
This semester, 76 students are enrolled in college courses, such as freshman English or western civilization. Each of those students are enrolled in at least two courses, for a total of six credit hours.
This time last year, 13 students were enrolled in the courses, which are administered by the Technical College of the Lowcountry. In the past year, students have enrolled in 646 credit hours and earned college credit for 510 of those hours. That's a pass rate of about 79 percent.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find any college anywhere that has a similar ratio of students taking classes and passing them at that rate," district instructional services chief Sean Alford said.
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To take the courses, students must pass one of two college-entrance exams, administered throughout the year at the school. Principal Priscilla Drake said every student takes the tests, and those who qualify for college-level courses choose whether to enroll.
The courses are taught by teachers at Whale Branch who meet TCL's qualification standards -- typically a master's degree and 18 graduate hours in the subject they teach, university president Thomas Leitzel said.
Alford attributes the first signs of success to the culture of the school. He said students have bought into the idea they can pass college courses, and the school is designed to support them. Rising ninth-graders take summer courses at the school to jump-start their high school years. Alford said freshmen and sophomores are involved in the AVID program, which emphasizes a college-preparatory curriculum.
Drake said students are often taken on college visits, and staff members talk about college every day.
"I think awareness is one of the biggest things," she said. "When I say 'awareness,' a lot of students are not quite as aware of college and what it takes to go to college. We're making them aware of what it takes and that the opportunity does exist."
Drake said that at a recent senior class meeting almost all of the 120 students set to become Whale Branch's first graduating class raised their hands when asked if they wanted to attend college -- a moment she called heartwarming.
Two seniors, Ariana Davis and Tanasia Hamilton, are on track to graduate with a high-school diploma and an associates degree. At a Board of Education meeting Tuesday, Davis reported that she's taking seven college courses -- a load she described as heavy but manageable.
"I enjoy attending Whale Branch because I am always supported," Davis said. "When I feel that this is too much and I can't do it, (the staff is) always there to encourage me."
Drake hopes other students see that example and aim to accomplish the same goal.
"Success breeds success," she said.
Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.