I was the kind of student who would have been perfect for an early college program. My two siblings and I were raised by a single mother who didn’t make a lot of money. I worked really hard in school to make sure I could get into a college that we could somehow pay for. If I had had a chance to take college courses when I was in high school and start college with a few credits already on my transcript, that would have been a great opportunity for me.

As the principal of the Early College School at Delaware State University in Dover, DE, I’m happy to give my students the opportunity that wasn’t available to me. My hope is that programs similar to ours can spread widely, especially to other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

The idea behind early college programs is just how it sounds: to allow students to take college classes while they are still in high school. Most early college programs teach the college curriculum at the high school where the students are enrolled. Dual enrollment is another common term for this approach.

But ours is different and it takes advantage of what I call “the power of place.” Our school building itself is on the college campus. Our students walk out of our building and go wherever their classes are on campus—where they sit in college classrooms next to college students, are taught by college professors, and take the same curriculum as their older classmates. Most early college programs allow students to earn an associate degree, along with their high school diploma, which is equivalent to 60 college credits. We didn’t have that option until this year, but our students can now earn associate degrees, as well.

Expanding to the Middle Grades

What’s even more exciting is that this year we’ve added seventh and eighth grade to our program, which had been grades 9–12 since it started in 2014. I’ve had the chance to visit early college middle schools, and I knew I wanted to do that at our school, as well. So, we added 100 students in each grade to go along with the 425 high school students we had already enrolled.

I have worked in public education in Delaware for 31 years, and I can tell you that turning a 14-year-old into a college student is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Taking college courses at 14 is just not that much of a natural thing. Students really need to be focused. By starting in middle school, we can expose them to that college culture a little earlier and also get them the supports they need. If you find out a ninth grader is struggling, they might need a lot of supports, such as after-school support or peer tutoring. But if you find that out in seventh grade, that gives you more time to get that student up to speed so they can do the college work by the time they are in high school.

Sometimes it’s a matter of teaching them what it’s like being on a college campus and being in that college culture, which includes developing good study habits and ways of managing time. Those skills are crucial not only to college but also to life.

A More Level Playing Field

One thing I love about our school is that we take students from all over the state because Delaware is a small state. And we provide transportation for them to come to Dover. We touch every community in the state: Our students come from cities, rural areas, and suburban areas. Our school changes the lives and communities of Black and Brown folks who might not have had these opportunities otherwise. The playing field is definitely more level when everyone has the same opportunity.

If you think about high school, students pack in a lot of courses in ninth and 10th grade. In grades 11 and 12, they have more time to take different courses or take advantage of early dismissal. Those final two years are when our students are typically taking their college classes. Instead of dismissing them early, why not give them the chance to earn college credits and take courses that can apply to their college major or some future career? They can do it at no cost and finish with up to two years of college credits.

One thing I realized early on at the school is that we needed a rubric to measure students’ readiness for college classes because there’s no single test that says you’re ready to take those classes. I wanted to include a lot of factors in the rubric. Yes, it includes an assessment, but it also takes into account grades, behavior, attendance, and teacher recommendations. We update student progress on the rubric eight times a year, and the students also get a college readiness report. With our middle school students, they will be getting a high school readiness report, and if they are prepared, they can take high school classes as early as eighth grade.

Nothing but Praise for Students

Once younger students start taking those college courses, in most cases, their professors and classmates don’t even know they are high school kids. We want them to blend in, and we don’t want the professors treating them any differently. The other college students don’t have a problem because our students tend to be very focused. Sometimes they’re scared because they are high school students sitting in a college classroom, and they want to do well. They don’t want to look like a struggling high school kid, so they work hard. College professors have nothing but praise for our students. It makes my heart sing when I hear from professors about how well our students are doing.

Our graduation rate is over 92%, and our students go on to top colleges all over the country. I have two right now who are on full rides at Stanford University. But more than half of them choose to continue their studies at Delaware State University. It makes sense because they can finish sooner and just continue where they left off in high school.

Our college president, Dr. Tony Allen, is chair of President Biden’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs. One of the things I’ve told him is that I would love to see an early college high school at every HBCU in the country. There are a few programs in place, but most of them are not actually located on campus like we are. I love that we’re right on campus. College life is taught to our students at a young age, and they’re more apt to finish if they have a leg up like that.

Dr. Evelyn Edney is the head of school of the Early College School at Delaware State University in Dover, DE, and a member of the NASSP Board of Directors.

Sidebar: Three School Leaders and Powerful Role Models

As they prepared for the 2022–23 school year, the three administrators at the Early College School at Delaware State University—Head of School Evelyn Edney, Principal Nyia McCants, and Associate Principal Dara Savage—thought it would be fun to pose for a group photo. They had no idea that the photo, which was posted on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, would reach more than 25,000 people.

“When you are in the midst of doing the work, you may not always recognize your influence on others,” McCants says. “This is how I believe we felt while taking the picture. Once I saw the picture, I saw how the strength, confidence, and excellence was eloquently portrayed by our female administrative team! Our school team is breaking barriers each day as we prepare high school students to complete college-level coursework while in high school. The historical inequities in education have been too long in existence, and we are committed to advancing opportunities for our students and staff. It is only befitting that we also set the example to effectively represent women in academic leadership.”

“When we first saw it, we absolutely loved it, but we had no idea it would reach so many people,” Savage says. “Having three African American women as a school leadership team is, sadly, somewhat of a unicorn, and the reaction to our photo supports that. Our racial identity is an important part of who we are, but it is not all of who we are. It is, however, an important part of the things we do and how we do them. We set high expectations for our scholars and our team, and they rise to the occasion every single time. We are keenly aware of societal challenges and ensure that our students have the supports they need. We lead by example to be lifelong learners and always look for opportunities to grow. We are proud to represent academic leadership, tenacity, resilience, and determination in the field of education.”