By Valerie Truesdale and Tom Leitzel
For over a decade, folks in Beaufort County who argued forcefully about whether the northern part of the county warranted its own high school, despite the fact that students there had to deal with 90-minute round-trips to attend Battery Creek High.
Once the high school was built, many believed that the school was doomed to be, at best, a substandard and struggling operation. But in just two years, Whale Branch Early College High School has made a promising start that has been highlighted by remarkable stores of student success.
Because rural Whale Branch has a high dropout rate as well as a high poverty rate — more than 90 percent of the area’s children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches — the school district partnered with the Technical College of the Lowcountry, adult education, adult literacy, the sheriff’s department and the county health center to create a full-service community school with “college-for-all-expectations.”
The “early college” approach at Whale Branch High has been an effective innovation. In effect, the high school was constructed with the technical college “inside” because a TCL counselor was located on site to provide direct assistance to students who want to take college classes.
Clearly, having access to college and a culture of high expectations has dramatically changed a community that was plagued for generations with low student achievement, high dropout rates and high unemployment. In just two years, the community has become engaged in stretching students toward success after high school.
• When Whale Branch Early College High School opened in fall 2010 amid aggressive community criticism, incoming juniors were challenged to prove that they were college-worthy. They were asked to prepare themselves to receive their diplomas in 2012 in exchange for a college or military acceptance letter in hand. Faculty and school leaders were hand-selected to develop a climate of high expectations. On June 7, more than 83 percent of seniors graduated with college acceptance letters or military appointments.
• In fall 2010, 13 students qualified to take college-level courses through the school’s partnership with TCL. In fall 2011, 76 students qualified. Through the fall 2011 semester, students attempted 729 credit hours of college-level work and successfully completed 642 credit hours – an 88 percent passing rate. In spring 2012, 44 percent of students were enrolled in three or more college-level courses.
• Of this year’s graduating class, one out of four took college classes at the technical college. Two seniors, Ariana Davis and Tanasia Hamilton, earned full associate’s degrees at TCL — the equivalent of two years of college — before they received their high school diplomas. Nineteen more students earned at least 24 college credit-hours, or about one year of college credit. Nine graduated with technical college certifications.
• Students are succeeding on state tests. Algebra I End-of-Course results in 2011 were the highest in the district. Biology students placed 6th out of 42 schools in the 2012 Biology Merit Exam at Clemson University.
Whale Branch’s successes weren’t limited to academics. The boys track and field team recently brought home a state championship, and the volleyball team won its regional championship. The football and baseball teams made it to the playoffs, and the wrestling team placed overall sixth in South Carolina.
No one — not the students, not the staff and not the parents — believe that overall student performance is where it needs to be. Much work remains to be done. But the improvement trend is undeniable, and hopes are high for the Warriors of Whale Branch Early College High School. Strong community partnerships are adding new chapters to this success story every day, and we share the community’s pride in what is being accomplished for the school’s 555 students.
The hard work of Principal Priscilla Drake and her faculty and staff is evident, as are the contributions of the Beaufort County Board of Education, the TCL Area Commission and college administrators. But the lion’s share of the credit goes to the students, who have proved to be serious learners with promising futures. Their graduation ceremonies were an inspiration for the entire community, and their class motto demonstrated their confidence and optimism: “They said we couldn’t do it, but look at us now.”
Dr. Valerie Truesdale is superintendent of the Beaufort County School District, and Dr. Tom Leitzel is president of the Technical College of the Lowcountry.