Issues & Insights
21st Century charter school
GEO Foundation

“A Small School With Big Chances”: The 21st Century Charter School at Gary

 By Amy Cummings and Frederick M. Hess

Editor’s Note: This is excerpted from a larger report published by the American Enterprise Institute. The full report is available here.

Driving the streets of Gary, Indiana, one feels frustration and abandoned hope. Once the home of a thriving steel industry, Gary has suffered a fate familiar to Rust Belt cities: population loss, unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, and illiteracy. Houses, restaurants, and schools are rundown and often shuttered.

Behind the former City Methodist Church — famous for its appearance in A Nightmare on Elm Street — sits the elementary building of the 21st Century Charter School at Gary, a K — 12 charter school and the flagship campus of the Greater Educational Opportunities (GEO) Foundation. GEO is a small charter management organization, founded in 1998 by Kevin Teasley, which today operates five schools in Gary, Indiana, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 GEO focuses on increasing high schoolers’ access to college. In this, GEO is similar to schools and systems across the land. Where it is distinctive, and worth a closer look, is how GEO is going about this.

Many schools now offer students the opportunity to earn college credit while in high school, with four in five U.S. high schools offering college courses to students. In fact, 34% of students earn college credit while in high school through dual enrollment or AP courses.

21C’s program represents a distinctive approach to bridging the high-school-to-college gap. 

Before 21C launched its college program in 2010, approximately 30 percent of 21C graduates were enrolling in college. 21C was using many familiar strategies to help students make it to college: Free Application of Federal Student Aid nights, application assistance, and campus tours. 

But, because just 13 percent of Gary adults have a bachelor’s degree, school leadership concluded that students were still not getting enough exposure to family and neighbors with college experience. 

Teasley’s solution was to get students on campus while in high school, so they could experience real college classes on a real campus taught by a real professor. 

Of the 62 graduates of the school in 2017—18, all 62 were accepted into college, the military, or a job right out of high school. Forty-eight percent enrolled in a two- or four-year college the fall immediately after high school — compared to 59 percent of black students nationwide — and 58 percent of those returned for a second year. 

The pivotal moment in 21C’s effort was a conversation Teasley had with 21C student Vincent Peña, who was considering dropping out. No one in his family had attended college, and Peña could not afford to either. Teasley took Peña to Ivy Tech to take the ACC UPLACER — the College Board’s online assessment of students’ readiness for college coursework. Peña passed, and in 2013 he became the first student in northwest Indiana to earn an associate degree in high school.

From there, 21C began enrolling more students in college courses. In 2012, 21C started to require that any student graduating from 21C must earn at least three college credits — the equivalent of one course — to receive their high school diploma. In 2018, the board increased that to 24 college credits, or a full year of college.

All college courses 21C students take are dual credit and dual enrollment, meaning students earn both high school and college credit and are considered students at both 21C and the college. 

Students work with the 21C guidance counselor to select college courses, but 21C manages the enrollment process for the students to avoid students enrolling in courses that do not add up to a degree or certification.

The number of college classes 21C high schoolers enroll in varies by grade level. For instance, six freshmen (out of 75 total) are taking a combined 60 college credits in the 2018 — 19 school year, while 43 juniors (out of 53) are taking a combined 535.

To ensure that students are not getting away with doing subpar work on campus, 21C teachers check in with students weekly on their progress, and the guidance counselor does a grade check for each student enrolled. 21C staff also meet two to three times a semester with college professors to ensure that students are showing up to class, participating, and staying up-to-date on classwork.

Once students are enrolled in a college course, GEO directly pays the college for tuition, buys textbooks for students, and provides transportation between 21C and campus. 21C uses general per-pupil K — 12 funding to finance its college program: $7,483 per student in 2017. 

High schools nationwide are seeking to increase students’ access to college, with many offering dual — credit, early college, or AP courses. 21C’s program is one intriguing approach that warrants considering as more schools and systems work to get students to and through college.

The challenges are real, but so are the benefits — and that may make this kind of approach an easier sell than anticipated. There is the clear benefit to students, who could earn an associate or even a bachelor’s degree while in high school — at no cost to their family and with access to supports that students may not otherwise have.

It is far too early to say whether 21C’s program “works”. Nonetheless, this venture is a practical, creative attempt to tackle the college access challenge.

This is the kind of entrepreneurial venture that could bring much-needed change to both high school and college and one that bears watching.

Amy Cummings is a research associate in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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