Early college culture fuels success

WECA earned As in end-of-grade testing

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Students, teachers and administrators say it is the culture at Wilson Early College Academy that resulted in the school receiving an A in end-of-grade testing.

WECA received the highest marks of all Wilson County Schools for the 2016-17 school year.

“Over the last four years, we have earned an A, but it’s been 85, 86, 87. My goal was to be at 90 and we exceeded that at 93 percent this school year,” said Principal Nelson Johnston, who is in his fifth year at WECA. “We had 93 percent proficient in English II, 89 percent proficient in Math I and 88 percent proficient in biology. In the first semester in biology we were at 97 percent proficient.”

The school has just begun its ninth year.

“The beauty of this program to me is about the relationships we have,” Johnston said. “There are 310 students and I remember every one of them,”

The school has 12 classrooms and 12 teachers and is based in Building J of Wilson Community College.

“The kids want to be here,” Johnson said. “Our small class sizes and the absence of discipline problems allows our teachers to teach without interruptions. We do a lot of group work, a lot of project-based learning.”

According to student Kelsey Hewett, it’s just like a big family at the school.

“We joke around. When we need to be serious we’re serious, but we’re always there for each other. We had, in the past, a student lose a parent and a lot of us came together to comfort him. We’re all there for each other,” Hewett said. “I’ve had a lot of people help me and I’ve helped other people, so it’s really nice to have someone who says ‘Well, I know how to do it and I will help you.’ We’re not competing against each other. We are working together as a team.”

In the mind of student Jonathan Bissette, the WECA culture means that the school has diverse people.

“We’re all different,” Bissette said. “We all don’t have the same opinions and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a really good thing that makes us more flexible when working together and working on projects and having a broader mind about society. We all know each other. The population is kind of small. We all get along.”

Johnston said the teachers are the backbone of the early college’s success on the EOGs.

English teacher Kimberly Jones Wright, who has been at the school for seven years, points to the rapport teachers have with the students.

“We get to know all of them and they get to know us. They get to feel comfortable, I think, in the classroom,” she said. “I often tell my students that no matter what career path they take, they need to have a great English foundation with their writing and their speaking. It is important to be able to effectively communicate to their future employers accurately. Literacy is a part of their world. I always admonish them to read, to seek out new vocabulary terms and apply that in all of their courses.”

Nick Johnson, who teaches physics, chemistry and Japanese and is in his seventh year, said the school’s success results from combination of factors.

“I think our size is a big factor. With smaller class sizes, you get more individualized attention,” Johnson said. “We have cultivated a culture of having the students take responsibility for their own learning and making them have that investment and take that ownership. I think that really, instead of giving them a task that they are forced and required to do, couching it in a different manner leads to better outcomes. I think that over the past few years, our results have spoken for themselves.”

“We’re given a whole lot of freedom in this school and with that comes responsibility,” said Bissette. “When we get put into the lives of adults that go to college, we start finding out that this is life and this is how we need to act.”

Science teacher Ken Schaffer said he was anticipating good results on the tests because the students worked to achieve.

“I think we just tried really hard. I think that’s why it happened,” Schaffer said. “I think we feel pretty good that we get good results every year.”

Elizabeth Pridgen, of Wilson, said hearing about the EOG results made her proud.

“I have always been really proud to say that I’m from early college, but it made me really proud to be from early college because we were the only A in Wilson County Schools,” Pridgen said.

Pridgen makes a point of being on time to get access to teachers when she need it.

“It’s important because you are gaining knowledge. If you have any questions, you can ask the professor and kind of get your face in the professor’s face and it lets it be known that you are there for a good reason and that you care about your education,” Pridgen said.

“We have good relationships with the teachers,” Bissette said. “We have students who tried hard throughout their educational lives and they earned their way to get here and we still continue to work hard in these classes.”

“Students at WECA are earning college credits while they are still in high school,” Johnston said. “Basically, they are gettiong their general college education out of the way. While they are here, they get college transfer courses for free and that’s huge because when kids graduate with their high school diploma, if you go to N.C. State or any of the colleges or universities in North Carlina, you are going to pay about $23,000 or $24,000 a year, so getting a two-year degree for free, and that means everything is for free, textbooks, all that stuff is free, so it is a motivating piece for the student and the parents.

“Our student graduation rate for the associate degree in arts and science are higher than they have ever been. We are graduating more students with their AA or AS degree than there have ever been in the past. A lot of times our kids get out in four years rather than five and that is generally student- and parent-driven.”