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Early college is Haywood’s ‘hidden gem’

Early college is Haywood’s ‘hidden gem’

A collaborative program designed to help students overcome the familial, financial and social obstructions of attending college lacks room to grow and is chronically underfunded, which may hamper efforts to serve more of the county’s most promising students.

Haywood Early College — a non-traditional high school operated in partnership with North Carolina New Schools and Haywood Community College — offers a five-year curriculum to incoming freshmen who eventually graduate with high school diplomas and associate degrees. 

Haywood Early College Principal Jeff Haney estimates 60 percent of his students are the first in their family to go to college.

“We’ve been in existence for 10 years and we still have that,” Haney said. “We have lots of financial and social barriers.”

HCC President Dr. Barbara Parker echoed Haney’s sentiments when she said that many students in Haywood County don’t realize that college is within their grasp.

But that grasp is tenuous at this point. HCC will receive about $2.8 million from the Connect NC bond referendum to make infrastructural improvements, but the HEC facility didn’t make the top priority list. 

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Meanwhile, enrollment has grown steadily from 136 students in 2011 to 180 today. 

Over that same span, HEC has issued 72 associate degrees and this year expects to issue 39 more to its students — almost half of which are on free or reduced lunches, and almost 10 percent of which are homeless. 

Haywood Early College does not charge tuition to its students. Haney said HEC receives funding from several sources; teachers are state-funded through the county, grants fund support personnel and books, and the county contributes about $4,000 a year for incidentals and supplies. 

Almost 70 students have graduated from HEC since 2012 and 31 are set to graduate this year, including Levi McCracken of Canton. McCracken is nearing the end of his fifth year at the school and is president of the student government.

“It’s an opportunity for students who want to go to college to start earlier,” he said.

McCracken is a finalist for the prestigious Morehead-Cain scholarship and hopes to study business at UNC-Chapel Hill, but wherever he ends up he’ll have a significant advantage over many of his peers, academically and financially.  

“The cost of attending college is on the rise, much faster than the cost of living is, so this gives you an opportunity to jump-start that at a more economic level,” he said.

Once McCracken leaves HEC, he’ll do so as a 19-year-old with an associate degree in arts, an associate in science, a certificate in business administration and a high school diploma.

“Chapel Hill is $26,000 a year, and I have approximately two years’ worth of credits,” he said. “So that’s $52,000.”

HCC and Haywood County School Board members recently held a joint meeting Feb. 23 and toured the HEC facilities on campus. During that meeting, HCC Board Member Dr. Tom McNeel took the podium to discuss the importance of HEC.

He explained that he was passionate about the early college perhaps because he could see his younger self in many of the students enrolled in the program. 

“It is because I was one of those economically disadvantaged children,” he said. Growing up in a West Virginia town of 50 people, McNeel graduated high school in a class of 12. 

“I tell people I graduated in the top 10 of my school,” he laughed. 

McNeel eventually became a teacher and superintendent, and currently serves as the chair of HCC’s building and grounds committee. 

He went on to lament the college’s ability to fund renovations at Building 400, and suggested the county itself might find a way to expand HEC’s capacity to serve more students like Levi McCracken. 

“Early college is a hidden gem in Haywood County,” McCracken said. “It’s an opportunity you can’t resist.”

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