CLARKSDALE – A high school here is giving its students a chance to earn college credits towards an associates degree.

Coahoma Agricultural High School now offers an Early College Program, which gives students the opportunity to earn 30 plus college credits towards a baccalaureate degree or earn an Associates degree from Coahoma Community College while obtaining their high school diploma.

Qualified students can begin taking college courses as early as the 9th grade, said Assistant Principal Cloretha Jamison, director of the Early College Program.

Although the high school is in its pilot stage of the program, it will become a full-fledged early college high school next year.

Jamison said she’s heard rumors circulating about the high school closing and she wanted to clear the air.

“No, we are not closing. The name is changing and people are not aware,” she said. “Yes, Aggie is closing, but we are reopening with something new. It’s still going to be Aggie, but we have our eyes on a higher prize.”

Initially, Coahoma Agricultural High was supposed to be an agricultural high school, but forming an agricultural theme was becoming difficult, said Jamison.

“Finding the personnel to teach those courses, having the curriculum, having students to buy into it was becoming difficult,” she said. This sparked the idea to provide something better – giving the students a chance to receive college credits, not just dual enrollment, at an early age, said Jamison.

Jamison said the Coahoma Agricultural High School is following the example of North Carolina early college high schools. She said research has shown that these schools are effective in retaining students and improving graduation rates.

The primary goal of the early college model is to increase the number of students who graduate from high school and who continue on to and succeed in college, according to a report by the Education Resources Information Center, an online digital library of education research and information.

“The graduation rate that we have in this area is below state average,” said Jamison. “With this program, it’s above 90 percent.”

The program is available for all ninth graders this year, but it is optional. Jamison noted that Coahoma Agricultural High School is an all-in school, which means students, from areas like Tunica and Quitman County, who are in their zone, have an opportunity to be a part of the program too.

During school hours, every Tuesday and Thursday the students in the program meet for their college classes. So far, they are limited to taking one class per semester.

“We only allow freshman to take one class per semester because students still have to focus on passing all high school courses and state assessments,” said Jamison. She said school administrators want to ensure that students will meet the state’s graduation requirements first, then pursue college.

“We  don’t want to overload the students with excess pressure in maintaining more than one course to start the program,” she said.

Jamison said the work can be strenuous for students. They have to maintain a C average or above for both high school and college courses.

Among courses offered to the students: Essential College Study Skills I & II, Community and Personal Health, Western Civilization I & II, Art and Music Appreciation, Intro to Sociology, English Comp I & II, College Algebra I & II.

Two ninth graders at the high school, Christopher Russell, 14, from Jonestown, and Thomas Williams, 15, from Friars Point, both agreed that the early college program would benefit their future.

“As we get older in life, it’ll give us more opportunities such as jobs,” said Russell.

As student athletes, the work can be challenging, said Russell. “It can be stressful between the high school and college work, but overall, it’s just having time management,” he said.

“Most times, we try to do work in class because we won’t have enough time with practice,” said Williams.

Russell said the early college students should have more privileges. He said they don’t have much free time to go to Coahoma Community College’s library or talk to their professors about their work. He said he wished there was time to get out of class to have study time.

Christopher Russell, ninth grader at Coahoma Agricultural High School, plays sports as well as taking college courses. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

But, Russell said, there are small increments of time before class where they can talk to Jamison and others concerning their college work.

There are support systems in place to help students when they desire it: Strategies for Success and Advanced Seminar, said Jamison.

Strategies for Success is a tutorial intervention enrichment period that is built into the students’ schedule, said Jamison. She said students are rotated once a week through their core subjects and if they are having trouble with their school or college work, they can receive help.

Advanced Seminar helps set them up for the early college program. Along with Jamison, two other teachers talk to the students about college options, career expectations and exploring their interests.

Because the high school is located on Coahoma Community College’s campus, the college professors are paid for teaching these courses to the students, said Jamison. Federal dollars pay for the other accommodations, she said.

Jamison said school administrators are hopeful of more investments from businesses and patrons. Coahoma Community College, Mississippi Department of Education and Mississippi State University Research and Curriculum Unit assisted the high school with this program.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.