Gaston College Prep

ByRob 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 Carolina’s 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 don’t 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 it’s not just a one-time deal, you know, that we’re here to do this on a regular basis and to continue to get better at it as well.

ROB HOLLIDAY: In what’s becoming a tradition at the Northampton County charter school, seniors have been unfurling t-shirts announcing the colleges they’ll be attending next year. It’s an exciting finish to what’s been a demanding passage through middle school and high school.

ASHLEY COBBS, SENIOR: It’s hard work, because our teachers stay on us every day about our homework and class assignments. They’re 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 it’s really important for kids and families to be able to say that there’s 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 hadn’t come to school here:

JAMES BRANTLEY, SENIOR: I think I wouldn’t be going to college right now, and I probably wouldn’t have learned as much as I have here.

ROB HOLLIDAY: That’s a feeling Victoria Bennett can certainly identify with. A year after standing on stage as part of Gaston College Prep’s 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 has—it’s been difficult, especially first semester, just really getting adjusted to everything…I’m 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: I’m looking at three solid A’s and two B’s right now.

ROB HOLLIDAY: Two hours east, at ECU in Greenville, Arneisha Malone is also wrapping up her freshman year.

ARNEISHA MALONE, ALUM: A’s and B’s, 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: There’s no doubt, if I didn’t 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. Don’t focus on how tough it is now. Think about what you’re 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 it’s not that far of a step.

ROB HOLLIDAY: Even though they’ve left Northampton County for college campuses across the state and across the country, last year’s 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: It’s great. It’s great. Because, you know, people say, “Oh, those kids, they might have graduated and been accepted, but they’re not going to stay.” And we’re all still there.

ROB HOLLIDAY: Even in her most stressful times—the 17-page papers, the biology exams, the all-nighters—Victoria was thinking of the folks back home.

VICTORIA BENNETT: A lot of pressure. But it’s good pressure, because it motivates me to make it. It motivates me to not give up. I had a period where I didn’t want to go back to school, I was tired, and my dad said, “You’ve got too many people riding on you. You can’t just let everybody in your community down.” And that’s what kept me motivated.

ARNEISHA MALONE: I want them to see what is possible, you know, that you don’t have to be stuck there. You can just go and get your education and the sky’s the limit. And I know that’s 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 doesn’t want the pressure to consume them.

TAMMI SUTTON: If a student decides to take a semester off, I don’t think that’s a failure. I don’t 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 wouldn’t want any student, any parent, any family thinking that that’s unacceptable, or that that’s a disappointment.

ROB HOLLIDAY: It’s early yet, but the students are looking at all sorts of majors—everything from clinical laboratory sciences to economics. And they also haven’t 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 they’re going to help this community.

ROB HOLLIDAY: Derrick Bennett plans to settle down back home, or at least close to it. But he’s got bachelor’s and master’s degrees to complete first.

DERRICK BENNETT, ALUM: Knowing that I made it this far, there’s no need to throw it all away and turn back. It’d 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.