CMS/UNCC engineering high school takes shape

ahelms@charlotteobserver.comJuly 5, 2014 

In a few more weeks, 100 ninth-graders from around Mecklenburg County will report to UNC Charlotte to start a five-year high school career.

Students at the Charlotte Engineering Early College High School will not only pioneer a new curriculum but a new approach to high school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Students will spend three years doing their high school work and two more taking college classes at no charge.

That was enough to entice 14-year-old James Baysinger to leave behind his friends in the Steele Creek area of southwest Charlotte and sign up for a long bus ride across town. He’ll report to class on Aug. 11 – following the UNCC calendar, rather than starting Aug. 25 with most of CMS – to meet his new classmates and their six teachers.

James admits to being a bit anxious, but the trade-off is “I won’t be as confused when I go to real college.” And of course his parents are psyched about the free college and the fast track to a good career.

There’s a wait list of 184 hoping to get a spot in the first class. The school was especially popular with students from Piedmont Middle School, an International Baccalaureate magnet, and Morehead STEM Academy, a math-science magnet near the UNCC campus, says Principal Will Leach.

“We’ve just been blown away at the interest in this program,” says Leach, who came from Butler High.

Early college is new to CMS, but not to North Carolina. State officials have been promoting college-based high schools for a decade, and such schools have been operating for years in Hickory, Statesville, Shelby, Monroe and Concord.

Like middle college high schools – including CMS’ Cato Middle College High – early college schools put students in a college setting where they can earn tuition-free college credits. But the middle college schools require students to have a couple of years of high school under their belts, while early college schools start with ninth grade.

The new school will be housed in modular classrooms (with brick facades to blend into campus) outside UNCC’s Energy Production and Infrastructure Center at the College of Engineering. Classes and projects will tap into the energy and sustainability themes.

Life on campus will be different from the normal high school day. For starters, the hours are 9:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., two hours later than most CMS high schools. There’s no cafeteria, but students can buy lunches brought in from a nearby school.

Class time will be spent in the CMS building, but school leaders say students will tour the campus and be invited to events so they’ll be at home when they start college work their junior year. While they’ll have an option to graduate in 2018, the goal is for most students to stay the extra year and earn maximum college credit, Leach said.

The early college school will offer some clubs and social events. In theory, students can return to their neighborhood schools to play sports or take part in other extracurriculars. James, who would like to do band and theater, said the bus ride is too long for him to get back to Olympic High for such things.

Leach and Michele Howard, the UNCC liaison to the new school, say students and parents aren’t the only ones showing interest. Employers are eager to see a stream of graduates with strong engineering skills who can move easily into college programs, they say.

In fact, when the school board approved the school name last month, administrators said they were suggesting a generic name in hopes that a corporate sponsor will step up to help build a permanent site on campus.

For now, though, Leach and his small faculty are focused on building school spirit when teens converge from across a sprawling county. They’ve chosen green and white as school colors, the same as UNCC’s. The nickname will be the Miners – a spin-off from the college 49ers and a play on the fact that the younger students will be minors.

And school leaders are keeping an eye on the state legislature. State money to support Charlotte Engineering Early College High, as well as two new middle colleges on Central Piedmont Community College campuses, is tied up in the ongoing budget wrangling.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms

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