Gaston College PrepByRob Holliday
SHANNON VICKERY: but first, a high school program helping students get into prestigious colleges, no matter their economic circumstances. For the second straight year, a public charter school in one of North Carolinas poorest counties is celebrating an impressive accomplishment. Rob Holliday has the story from Northampton County.
ROB HOLLIDAY: The students at Gaston College Prep high school dont have a nearby water tower to paint, but the graduates-to-be are still sharing their accomplishments in a very public way. Once again this year, all the members of the senior class have been accepted to a four-year college.
TAMMI SUTTON, SCHOOL LEADER: A lot of the excitement and pressure about the second class has been about showing that its not just a one-time deal, you know, that were here to do this on a regular basis and to continue to get better at it as well.
ROB HOLLIDAY: In whats becoming a tradition at the Northampton County charter school, seniors have been unfurling t-shirts announcing the colleges theyll be attending next year. Its an exciting finish to whats been a demanding passage through middle school and high school.
ASHLEY COBBS, SENIOR: Its hard work, because our teachers stay on us every day about our homework and class assignments. Theyre just super-dedicated.
ROB HOLLIDAY: Gaston College Prep is run by KIPP, a national organization that operates free public charter schools across the country and sets very high standards.
TEACHER (demonstrating for the class): Cohesion: water sticking to water. Adhesion: water sticking to string.
ROB HOLLIDAY: The school day starts at 7 AM, and most of the students take Advanced Placement courses for college credit before they graduate. Future NC State student James Brantley fought his mom tooth and nail when she enrolled him here as a sixth-grader.
CHRISSY POOLE, PARENT: I had other parents say, How could you let him go to school so long? It was really hard. I mean, we were doing something different, we were doing something that nobody else in the community had done.
ROB HOLLIDAY: Gaston College Prep is doing its work in the largely rural northeastern part of North Carolina, serving counties with poverty, graduation and unemployment rates that are worse than the state average.
TAMMI SUTTON: You hear so much in the northeast about things that are going wrong, that I think its really important for kids and families to be able to say that theres a spotlight on education in this area for all the right reasons. College is a gateway for a life of choices and opportunities and the ability to change the world, which is the true testament to our school, that those things happen.
ROB HOLLIDAY: 80 percent of these graduating seniors are the first in their families to attend a four-year college. Some of the students travel from as far away as Durham to attend class here.
ROB HOLLIDAY (interviewing): What do you think it would have been like if you hadnt come to school here:
JAMES BRANTLEY, SENIOR: I think I wouldnt be going to college right now, and I probably wouldnt have learned as much as I have here.
ROB HOLLIDAY: Thats a feeling Victoria Bennett can certainly identify with. A year after standing on stage as part of Gaston College Preps first graduating class, Victoria is in Chapel Hill, sitting in a freshman biology class.
VICTORIA BENNETT, ALUM: It was intimidating, really intimidating. I kind of felt like, you know, I dont know if I really belong here, or if this is the school for me, or if I can hang with people at Carolina. But after a week or so, I realized I could hang. I feel like I have a purpose here, to speak up for my community, to say look, we dont have everything that everybody else has, but I made it, and my community is going to make it.
ROB HOLLIDAY: Going from a school with a graduating class of less than 50 to a university with nearly 28,000 students has been an adjustment for some of the Northampton County students.
ADRYEN PROCTOR, ALUM: The first year hasits been difficult, especially first semester, just really getting adjusted to everything Im in a psychology 101 class, it had well over 500 students. And it is a really big lecture hall.
ROB HOLLIDAY: But nonetheless, Adryen Proctor says his freshman year has been a success.
ADRYEN PROCTOR: Im looking at three solid As and two Bs right now.
ROB HOLLIDAY: Two hours east, at ECU in Greenville, Arneisha Malone is also wrapping up her freshman year.
ARNEISHA MALONE, ALUM: As and Bs, yeah.
ROB HOLLIDAY: Much like many of her classmates, Arneisha had some challenges in the fall semester. She says the perseverance she learned in high school was a major help.
ARNEISHA MALONE: Theres no doubt, if I didnt go to KIPP, I would not be at ECU right now. They taught us to stick it out, and to think about what lies ahead. Dont focus on how tough it is now. Think about what youre working for.
ADRYEN PROCTOR: They prepared me a lot, especially for the workload. The workload definitely helps, you know, getting that level of rigorous activity during high school and then transitioning to college. College is a step up, but its not that far of a step.
ROB HOLLIDAY: Even though theyve left Northampton County for college campuses across the state and across the country, last years Gaston College Prep graduating class is still setting major milestones. A year after 100 percent of them were accepted to college, 100 percent of them are staying in college, finishing up their freshman year and planning to return as sophomores in the fall.
VICTORIA BENNETT: Its great. Its great. Because, you know, people say, Oh, those kids, they might have graduated and been accepted, but theyre not going to stay. And were all still there.
ROB HOLLIDAY: Even in her most stressful timesthe 17-page papers, the biology exams, the all-nightersVictoria was thinking of the folks back home.
VICTORIA BENNETT: A lot of pressure. But its good pressure, because it motivates me to make it. It motivates me to not give up. I had a period where I didnt want to go back to school, I was tired, and my dad said, Youve got too many people riding on you. You cant just let everybody in your community down. And thats what kept me motivated.
ARNEISHA MALONE: I want them to see what is possible, you know, that you dont have to be stuck there. You can just go and get your education and the skys the limit. And I know thats cliché, but education is really the way out of anything.
ROB HOLLIDAY: All through their first year of college, the students have gotten plenty of encouragement from Tammi Sutton and a team of teachers at home in Northampton County. Sutton is proud of that first class, but she also doesnt want the pressure to consume them.
TAMMI SUTTON: If a student decides to take a semester off, I dont think thats a failure. I dont think that in four years you have to graduate. I think that if you take a semester off, if you transfer, if you figure out that you need to be closer to home for a semester or for a year, I wouldnt want any student, any parent, any family thinking that thats unacceptable, or that thats a disappointment.
ROB HOLLIDAY: Its early yet, but the students are looking at all sorts of majorseverything from clinical laboratory sciences to economics. And they also havent taken their eyes off a return trip home.
CHRISSY POOLE: Not all these kids are going to come back to this community, but some of them are. Some of these well-educated young people are going to come back, and theyre going to help this community.
ROB HOLLIDAY: Derrick Bennett plans to settle down back home, or at least close to it. But hes got bachelors and masters degrees to complete first.
DERRICK BENNETT, ALUM: Knowing that I made it this far, theres no need to throw it all away and turn back. Itd just be a waste of time. If I have the potential to do whatever I want, why not take advantage of it? Why let it go to waste?
SHANNON VICKERY: In addition to Gaston College Prep in the northeastern part of the state, KIPP also runs a charter school in Charlotte.