'Watauga Career Academy' plans put on hold
by Kellen Moore
For months, administrators from both systems have been planning for the Watauga Career Academy, a separate school within Watauga High School that might have opened as early as August.
The school, referred to as a "cooperative innovative high school" in education lingo, would allow up to 100 students per grade level to seamlessly earn college credits starting their freshman year.
The program would be geared toward students in career and technical education fields more likely headed to community colleges rather than four-year universities.
But legislation that passed the General Assembly in its final weeks of the summer session put a kink in Watauga County Schools' rapidly moving plans, and they are now putting off the opening for at least one year to meet the new requirements.
"Hopefully, knock on wood, this time next year we'll be planning for that to officially roll out the way it's supposed to," Superintendent David Kafitz said.
Watauga High School and Caldwell Community College have cooperated well in the past, offering Huskins and dual-enrollment classes to growing numbers of Watauga students.
Last year, the General Assembly embraced Career and College Promise, an initiative of Gov. Bev Perdue to offer specific pathways to help juniors and seniors get a jump on education after high school.
But Career and College Promise eliminated existing dual-enrollment programs like those offered at WHS and rolled everything into its new structure, available only to 11th- and 12th-grade students, said Rob Hines, director of LEA projects for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
A cooperative innovative high school, however, can still offer college courses to students starting in ninth grade.
So Watauga County Schools and Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute submitted its application to the State Board of Education this spring.
There are currently about 125 cooperative innovative high schools statewide, including early and middle colleges and schools-within-a-school, Hines said.
The programs are one of the most convenient ways for students to earn college credits early, often at little to no expense. They also have shown potential for curbing dropout rates, according to state studies.
"These are students, relatively young students, and they're taking college courses. That's a confidence-builder for students," Hines said. "They like the allure of doing that kind of thing and being successful in that kind of environment."
But Watauga's application was pulled from the State Board of Education's meeting agenda last week following changes in community college legislation during the General Assembly's final weeks.
Essentially, the change prevents a community college from covering the cost of ninth and 10th-grade students without specific approval from the General Assembly. Through Career & College Promise, the 11th- and 12th-grade students would automatically be covered.
Now, Watauga High School and Caldwell Community College will likely wait for the General Assembly's long session in January to request an allowance to cover those freshmen and sophomores.
Kafitz said that cost would likely range from about $230,000 to $260,000 total.
"All that's tentative, and nothing's firm there yet," Kafitz said, adding that the stakeholders held a meeting early this week to consider options. "We're still meeting and trying to figure out what we feel like our best solution is going to be."
If the state funding did not materialize, the school system and community college could turn to county commissioners, foundations and nonprofits or other private donors to cover the cost.
Kenneth Boham, president of Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute, could not be reached by press time.
While many questions are still unanswered, Kafitz said the program may prove beneficial to Watauga County students.
An innovative high school program would allow students to easily start building a college transcript in high school with fewer burdens to earning credit, he said.
He emphasized that the Watauga Career Academy would not be an attempt to reduce the number of Advanced Placement courses or advanced courses, through which students also can earn college credit.
"It is something that we are going to continue to work towards offering," Kafitz said. "We just have to get all the pieces in place in order to get it off the ground successfully and make sure that it is funded appropriately."