On a recent Friday morning at Tougaloo College, the classroom was quiet as students huddled over their laptops and googled salaries of their dream jobs.

The room was filled with a smattering of future nurses, archaeologists, NBA players and others who collectively erupted into gasps as they typed salaries for those careers into an income tax calculator and learned how much Uncle Sam would take out of their paychecks.

Students research job salaries and how to calculate taxes during a class exercise at Early College High School, located at Tougaloo College, Friday, August 17, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

The exercise was part of a college and career readiness class the ninth graders at the Early College High School program in the Jackson Public School District.

Launched as a partnership between the district and Tougaloo College, the inaugural class has 44 students who can graduate from high school with an associate’s degree or up to two years of college credits.

At an orientation session ahead of the first day of school, parents and students voted to name the school Michelle Obama Early College High School, but the name change is not yet officially approved by the school board.

Students applied to attend, and principal Chinelo Evans and her staff conducted student and parent interviews. The school gave priority to students who would be the first in their family to attend college as well as those from less wealthy families, she said.

The ultimate goal for Evans and her staff is to ensure students receive a quality high school education and for students to realize their potential after graduation. Both nationally and in Mississippi, early colleges serve as a conduit to expose students to higher education.

“They are designed for students who show a lot of academic potential but may thrive in a little bit smaller setting and have some additional supports,” said Nathan Oakley, chief academic officer with the Mississippi Department of Education.” For a lot of students coming into high school, if nobody in their family has pursued college in the past they’re going to automatically think it’s off the table.”

Some early colleges originally opened as a program and not an individual school – Oakley said the state is in the process of standardizing the process to open these kinds of schools.

Supporters believe the schools are already showing results.

Mississippi’s first graduating class of early college students will cross the stage in May 2019 at Golden Triangle Early College High School, which opened in 2015. The Natchez Early College Academy and Coahoma Early College High School are newer and serve students in their respective districts.

State testing data show some early colleges have a high level of students meeting or exceeding their grade level expectations. At the Golden Triangle and Natchez schools, 60 percent of students scored proficient or advanced on their English II assessments, about 15 points higher than the state average. In Algebra I, 41.5 percent of Golden Triangle students and 46.5 percent of Natchez students were proficient or advanced, on par with the 46.6 percent state average. At the Coahoma Early College school, 20 percent of students were proficient or advanced in the English assessment and 21.6 were proficient or advanced in algebra.

Jackson’s early college program, like the others, will take the same assessments as traditional public schools.

Evans adds  the school is an attractive option for students who want a different approach to high school.

“These students may have hated school before, they may not have seen how they fit in, they might have felt like school was not for them or felt in danger of dropping out,” Evans said. “So it’s really like a mechanism to see if we provide the opportunity and the increased support, can we help students who might not traditionally go to college go to college?”

Freshman Carlin Nichols, a confident 14-year-old, said he wanted to attend the school because he wanted a rigorous high school experience.

“Most of my life, most of the curriculums I’ve been taking, they have not … met up with my brain power,” Nichols said. “I wanted something that would challenge my brain, something that would make me smarter instead of using what I already know.”

His classmate, Delores Jackson, said, “I thought it would be scary because we’re with the big kids.” But she faced that fear because she really wanted to attend the school. The JPS students follow the district’s high school dress code and must wear their identification badges at all times to distinguish themselves from the Tougaloo students.

“I felt like it would be a great experience and even though we wouldn’t get the normal high school experience, we would be ahead in life. And that’s really all that matters to me,” the 14-year-old said.

Both students said they appreciate the small class sizes — each year the school can accept up to 50 students, and this year’s average class size is 11 students, Evans said.

“The environment is small, so if you have a question it’s not like you’re going to raise your hand and they’re like, ‘Oh well we can’t go back over that,’” Jackson said. “It’s nine people in my homeroom class and you’re with the same people all the time so you get to build good relationships.”

Nichols, agreed, telling Mississippi Today: “The benefit of it being a smaller group is that you get to connect more with everybody.”

Jackson’s parents are both teachers themselves, and said they’ve noticed how excited their daughter is to attend school.

“I think that there are those students who just want to do more, but sometimes they need a smaller environment in order to succeed,” said her mother, Phyllis Sanders.

“Knowing that my daughter is in a position that she doesn’t have to sit there bored, that’s exciting,” her father Douglas Sanders said.

Students raise their hands to ask questions as they work to complete a class exercise at Early College High School, located at Tougaloo College, Friday, August 17, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

The students begin with one college course a semester starting with a “freshman experience” class first-year Tougaloo students take as well. In 10th grade, students take one or two college classes per semester and finish most of their high school coursework so that their last two years can focus on college. If a student follows these requirements according to schedule, he or she will graduate with an associate’s degree from Tougaloo or two years of college credit towards a bachelor’s degree.

Four teachers, a lead counselor, and and intervention specialist staff the program. Bianca Garner, Tougaloo’s provost and vice president of academic affairs, said professors would teach the courses as normal, but the early college students have access to mentoring and tutoring. According to a memorandum of understanding, the early college pays the fees for Tougaloo courses, Garner said.

The program is located inside the Owens Health and Wellness Center on campus until Tougaloo can provide a more permanent space. Although the space is temporary, teachers decorated their spaces just like their colleagues across the district would — the walls are covered in colorful construction paper, charts and signs to keep students engaged. In the English classroom, large block letters that read “It’s Lit!” adorn a chalkboard. On the its ledge, where the chalk would normally would be kept, are a collection of books for students to borrow.

JPS school buses take the students to campus every morning. Students start the day with a homeroom period when they eat breakfast in the classroom and socialize before the school day officially begins, Evans said. Monday through Thursday the students take four classes a day on an alternating schedule, and on “Flex Fridays” the students hear from guest speakers or take field trips.

The salary and income tax exercise took place during one of those Fridays — Evans says such tasks may seem insignificant to students but the exercises get them thinking about what they need to do to be successful in the future.

“This time is flexible so that it’s not just about what’s in the book or what’s on the internet, but about life,” Evans said. “So that they are better prepared to get those internships that could lead to permanent jobs or lead to them creating their own businesses.”

Evans, a veteran of the district, saw the school as a chance to do what she loved and get back into the classroom.

“I love school! I really do,” Evans said. “This gives me life. And being disconnected from the school every day was very challenging for me.”

For the last four years she worked as chief academic officer of middle schools and, afterward, executive director of school improvement, but her passion is in the classroom with students, she said.

“I think education is a tool to improve economic development for Jackson and Mississippi,” Evans said. “The better job we do with these students in helping them define how they fit in that economic development process, the better our community will be.”

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.