Dare County early college moves closer to reality after commissioners’ approval

By on February 5, 2024

The new early college building would be on the campus of the county’s partner, COA.

By a unanimous vote at their Feb. 5 meeting, the Dare County Commissioners approved moving forward with the establishment of an early college for high school students that would likely enroll its first class in the fall of 2025 and then move to a new building on the College of the Albemarle campus in 2026.

The commissioners’ decision follows on the heels of a similar approval of the early college proposal at the Jan. 16 meeting of the Dare County Capital Improvement Committee. And it represents a victory for Dare Schools Superintendent Steve Basnight, who has been the primary advocate for the early college and who, earlier in his career, had been the principal of the J.P. Knapp Early College in Currituck County.

In his presentation to the commissioners, Basnight asserted that “I’ve long believed [the lack of an early college] has been one of the drawbacks in Dare County.” He also pointed out that the county is one of 17 districts in the 115-district state school system without an early college.

Students at the early college will receive a high school diploma upon completion of the N.C. standards for high school graduation. Beginning with their enrollment in the ninth grade, they will also be able to take college-level courses for college credit and concurrently earn high school credits for completing them, depending on their goals, interests and pace of learning.

The students will be working toward an associate in arts degree, an associate in science degree, and/or a career certification before graduation. They will have five years to complete this program as opposed to the traditional four-year graduation plan. The associate degree or career certification will come from COA, the county’s early college partner.

During his remarks at the Feb. 5 meeting, Basnight pointed out that the “difference is with the demographic that makes up the early college and why they’re there.”

The students the school will enroll are from low socio-economic backgrounds, minorities, English-language learners, first-time college goers in their family, those at risk of not graduating from another high school and those students wanting educational advancement at a quicker pace. Grades are not a criterion for acceptance.

Commissioner Rob Ross briefly questioned Basnight on the idea of seeking students who are having academic difficulties, to which Basnight responded that “in the early college settling, the students are going to receive that support. It’s a different climate and a different culture.”

“Everyone learns differently,” added Commission Steve House.

Prior to Basnight’s presentation, County Manager Bobby Outten reviewed the county’s ongoing efforts to create an early college. An initial plan to use two buildings from the old COA campus on Russell Twiford Road was discarded when it was discovered that the cost to renovate the two buildings was around $17 million. At that point, he said, the Capital Improvement Committee “decided it would be better to build a new building” for not all that much more money.

The county is setting a price tag of about $25 million for the construction of the new building on the current COA Dare campus that is slated to be ready by the fall of 2026. Outten stressed that the project would not require any local tax money and will be financed with lottery money and state funds each designated for school construction.

In the meantime, it is likely that the first class of about 50 ninth graders will be enrolled in the fall of 2025 at one of the Russell Twiford buildings. Ultimately, the school plans to enroll a total of about 350 students in the four grades once the new building is up and running.

The commissioners’ discussion of the issue was relatively brief, and the tone was supportive of the early college venture. In Basnight’s words: “It’s a win-win-win all the way down the road. We striving to give our kids the best option to move forward.”

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