Gift vs. Grit: J.P. Knapp Early College High School

J.P. Knapp’s principal, Steve Basnight

The bell-towered, red brick school building in Currituck has been misunderstood since it opened its doors as J.P. Knapp Early College High School in 2008. Many county residents – even those with school-aged children – have mistakenly described it as a “school for the gifted.” More grit than gift, the outcome requires years of rigorous work from students, parents, and teachers alike. Graduates who emerge with both a high school diploma and an associate degree have often defied the odds and circumstances that were stacked against them by middle school.

“It’s Everything I Thought Education Could Be.”

In 2002, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began a nationwide movement. The seemingly impossible premise was that students who were not likely to ever consider college could not only take college level classes, but they could also earn a college degree during high school.

Steve Basnight, J.P. Knapp’s principal says, “The largest misconception is that we take the cream of the crop, the most motivated, the academically gifted, the students who are already college-bound. That’s NOT our demographic. Our school was established on the framework that we have to accept, even actively seek, students from five categories.”

JP Knapp Front of SchoolThose categories are low socio-economic families, first generation college attendees, minorities, English language learners, and the broad category of ‘at risk students,’ including those who are statistically likely to drop out due to absenteeism or other behavioral issues.

Breathless and armed with plenty of encouraging statistics, it’s easy to hear the passion that Basnight has for the school. “Out of last year’s freshman class, 79.4 percent met one or more of those five categories. And yet, here we were just recognized by the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) in Raleigh for a graduation rate of 100 percent one year, over 95 percent the next!”

That graduation rate may look like a misprint given that many of these students were once at risk for dropping out. Very few would have ever considered college or Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

Basnight’s background is also extensive. He taught AP classes in Manteo, spent four years in Dare County Schools’ central administration office, worked with the state DPI, has a son who is currently dual-enrolled in college courses in Dare County, and is on numerous advisory committees at community colleges.

“I spent 27 years in Dare and I’ve worked regionally and nationally in the education system. I have been studying early college and dual-enrollment for years…I have been on all sides of this discussion,” Basnight says.

“As an educator you always ask, ‘I wonder if that [new approach] would work?’” he adds. “If you look at it from that lens and you factor in our student demographics – and then you see that 64 percent of our graduates will also walk across the stage with their associate degree or a [professional] certification from College of the Albemarle (COA), you will see that this is everything education should be.”

“We Don’t Teach Classes. We Teach Kids.”

jp-knapp_purple-hallAnother myth is that earning college credits during high school means that students are subjected to accelerated class content, longer instructional days, or many months in summer school. The difference, rather, is in the rigor.

“The challenge is to go deeper and have classes that focus on collaborative problem solving,” says Basnight. “Some of our ninth and 10th graders may start some college level courses. Some, not all.”

“If you go to Knapp, it means you’re focused on going to college,” says Hunter Russell, a 10th grader at J.P. Knapp. Describing the difference between her eighth grade workload at her previous school and her freshman year at Knapp, she says, “My mindset changed; I feel like it was a reality check to go to Knapp.”

Neither of Russell’s parents graduated from college. “We both wish we had taken school as seriously as Hunter does now,” says her mother, Heidi. Heidi works a full-time job, two part-time jobs, and recently went back to college herself to study for her paramedic state exam. “We do homework together!” she adds with a touch of irony.

“We Put a Net Under Everybody.”

Already a small school by most standards, there is a total of 295 students enrolled at J. P. Knapp. Students spend four or five years at Knapp before graduating, and the average class size is 19. Russell describes the family-like setting and says that’s helped by the fact that many upper classmen are bussed to COA campuses and to the Regional Aviation and Technical Training Center.

“It’s mostly just ninth and 10th graders there. My classes have between eleven and twenty students,” she says.

jp-knapp-hallwayThere’s tutoring every morning before school for those who need it, and students are dismissed at 12:30 p.m. on Friday so they have another chance to get extra help that afternoon. “It’s amazing,” Russell says about the Friday half days. “It just relieves the stress from the week. If someone is behind, they can stay a full day. There are also ‘office hours’ on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and students get to pick where they want to go for extra help…teachers are there to help you!”

There are also a variety of customized ways to attend classes – all of which are geared to find the best fit for each student. This includes traditional face-to-face classrooms, online public school classes, online COA classes (offered through both the Elizabeth City or the Manteo campuses), and finally, a hybrid version that allows a student to take four days of online instruction each week with a fifth day that can be earned by participating in a Skyped tutorial, an in-person class, or even through one-on-one instruction with a teacher.

There are no organized athletic teams, and admittedly, that is a factor for some students. “I still play volleyball with friends,” says Russell before reciting an extensive list of service and social clubs she has joined. “If I were into five different sports, I may not have wanted to come to Knapp but it wasn’t a problem for me.”

“Even P.E. is different here,” says Basnight. “It’s all based on personal achievement. Each student begins the year with a one-mile run to find their baseline.” A student’s progress is then determined by keeping track of how much they improve beyond that baseline running time. “We’re not comparing kids to kids – just you to you,” he adds.

Math 101 – Cutting Down on College Costs

COA and J.P. Knapp have a memorandum of understanding with the University of North Carolina (UNC), which guarantees that every college credit students earn at Knapp will be honored at UNC’s 16 university locations.

jp-knapp-classroom“Think about it,” Basnight says. “When you and I went to college, a large part of our first year was taking general studies courses that are so similar to high school, like your intro English, or history classes. [J.P. Knapp] lets kids take those same college classes in high school and gives them college credit.”

By contrast, he says, “If you take AP classes at other high schools, it’s your final score on the AP exam that will dictate whether or not that transfers as college credit. So, you may not get anything for taking it [that a college will recognize].”

One of the most enticing aspects of early college enrollment is the price tag for students and parents: zero. Instead of accumulating college debt, students can push the fast-forward button and land on campus as juniors. Some decide to skip the university financial aid office altogether and enter the workforce with a certification earned during high school.

According to Education Week, “Early colleges are grounded in a simple proposition: Academic rigor combined with the opportunity to save time and money acts as a powerful motivator for students to work hard and meet the serious intellectual challenge of completing substantial college-level work along with a high school diploma.”

Application and Interview

Informational meetings take place in January for any eighth graders who are Currituck residents. Only eighth graders may apply, but upper class transfers are considered from other early college high schools. A team of administrators and educators then interview students and parents. Recent years have seen 100 to 125 applicants for the 75 available seats.

“It was very stressful, but the people who interviewed me were great,” Russell says. “I liked the fact that I had to fill out an application. It made me feel special.”

The interview team also spoke with Russell’s eighth grade teacher to get more input about whether she would make it at Knapp.

Basnight explains that this process helps them “find students who know that it’s not free; they are going to have to work for it.”

Russell recognizes that not every student remains committed to a baccalaureate curriculum, and those are the ones who do not graduate with extra credentials added to their high school diplomas.

She is determined to be one of the 64 percent who do, however.

Along with the almost 30-mile commute from her home, Russell was unsure about leaving her friends to go to another school, but “my parents really wanted me to go, so I said I would at least try one year.”

When asked if she considered leaving J.P. Knapp after fulfilling her promise, she laughs and says, “It didn’t even cross my mind!” 

And for Dare County Students…

Dual-Enrollment Options at COA’s Manteo Campus

Since 2012, qualified juniors and seniors from all three local high schools (Cape Hatteras, Manteo, and First Flight) have taken advantage of COA’s Career and College Promise (CCP) to get ahead.

CCP is a seamless, dual-enrollment program to help students earn college certificates, diplomas, and associate degrees while still in high school. There are 106 Dare County high school students enrolled in CCP this semester.

“The typical model is for students to take some CCP classes in place of traditional high school classes; thus, receiving both high school and college credit for these classes,” says Arty Tillet, Dare County School’s director of secondary instruction. “In addition, more and more students are taking advantage of the opportunity to take CCP classes at no cost in the summer when they have more free time.”

Student Success Story #1: Lauren O’Dell completed five COA courses as a senior at First Flight High School. This allowed her to transfer 15 credit hours to UNC-Chapel Hill before starting there as a freshman this fall.

“CCP classes are offered via face-to-face instruction, online, or a hybrid of both,” says Dean Roughton, COA’s Dean of Arts and Sciences and Secondary Education. “Currently, Dare County students are enrolled in all three types of classes.”

Some students choose courses designed to prepare them for earning their four-year degree later on a college campus. Others earn professional certification and technical training in 13 different professions such as Aviation Systems Technology, Criminal Justice, Welding, Computer Programming, and HVAC repair. No matter the focus, fortunately, there’s no mystery about whether credits will transfer as college credit.

“The Comprehensive Articulation Agreement between all 58 community colleges, 16 UNC schools, and 24 independent colleges and universities ensures that approved courses will be accepted for credit by all member institutions,” Roughton says.

Student Success Story #2: In 2016, Dora Tovar graduated from Manteo High School with 16 credit hours through dual-enrollment at COA. Earning a semester’s worth of college credit is now saving her an estimated $10,000 in tuition, room and board, and other expenses associated with the cost of attending UNC-Asheville.

An exciting new initiative in dual-enrollment means that students now have the opportunity to take some high school courses in middle school, giving them more time to take college courses during their high school years.

Tillet says, “By the class of 2021, [Dare County students] will be able to graduate with an associate degree from COA or significant transfer college credit, all within the traditional four years of high school – and without moving to another school or campus.” ♦

Susan Selig Classen
Susan Selig Classen has been living, writing, and editing on the Outer Banks for over ten years. Her other published work includes articles in AOPA Pilot, Convention South, and Brain Child magazines. Susan was formerly the editor for Three Dog Ink Media.

Leave a Comment