Western Early College High School is a new member of Middle College National Consortium. Partnered with Jefferson Community and Technical College, WECHS was a struggling comprehensive high school in Louisville, KY when, with the support of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, it ventured into offering high school students an early college experience. Former principal, David Mike, made radical changes in student behavior, while opening the door to college for its students. Now, with the guidance and support of Middle College National Consortium and JCTC, Western Early College and its new principal, Michael Newman, are taking its program to new heights. Newman is combining educational experience, business savvy, and the love of a good challenge to address the needs and aspirations of underserved first generation college-bound students who need to meet today’s high standards to make their dreams come true. Recently Newman took some time to share with us his philosophy, experience, and plans for the future of Western ECHS.
What was your journey to Western ECHS? Was there any particular experience or personality trait that made you a good fit for this position?
I grew up in Louisville. From an early age I was always goal driven. I went to a large high school, where kids didn’t get a lot of counseling, because it was always assumed everyone would do well. I loved and participated in sports and I always knew I’d go to college. Even during high school, I was climbing into leadership positions. I was captain of sports teams, etc. When I did enter college, I intended to be an environmental engineer.
Once there, I realized that wasn’t the path for me. I made a one hundred eighty degree turn and became an English major. While I was in college, I also worked as a business manager and loved the opportunity to implement systems to structure an organization. When I graduated, I became a teacher in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The population was the opposite of my own experience in Louisville. I saw the void in my students’ experiences, their lack of skills, and sought from the beginning to address this. As a teacher, I sought out leadership roles and my principal counseled me to become an administrator. He pointed out that I could impact more kids than just the ones in my classes, if I could lead an entire school.
Later, I moved to Knoxville and started graduate school. There, I worked with a totally different demographic population. Again, both administrators and principals counseled me towards educational leadership. After receiving my degree, I came home to Louisville to work at Western. After a year as a teacher, I became an Assistant Principal at the school. Then, under the tutelage of Principal David Mike, I saw how effective systems could impact the behavior of students, taking the school from chaos back to order. He fostered the ideas that teachers were autonomous and that students had to be held to a model of behavior. Together, using our mutually beneficial partnership, we turned the behavioral component of a low achieving school around; I learned from him and he sought my advice on the academic life of students. The result of our efforts was that Western was able to move out of the NCLB “doghouse.” Then the state changed its accountability standards, and with the adoption of the Common Core, we fell back below again.
Western’s Early College was a program in a large comprehensive high school and not sustainable, because it targeted only a small select group of students. Over the last 3 years, representatives from the school, Woodrow Wilson, and JCTC worked as a team to redefine what the model should look like. Now, as principal, I can take my passion for young people and the lessons I learned from my turn-around work under David Mike to transform our Early College to a whole school model that gives our population tangible goals and a clear pathway to realizing them.
What elements of ECHS attracted you to the program?
When Western was selected to be an Early College, many people considered merge of the design of an EC program into a comprehensive public high school as a nearly impossible challenge. Because of my business background and love for logistics, I viewed it as I a start-up “company.” The program meshed with my passion for kids. Working through the EC model, I was able to offer socially disadvantaged, underserved populations a sure reality and a way to improve the conditions in their lives.
What changes or new directions to Western ECHS do you hope to implement?
The school has a clear goal: All Western Warriors will leave college ready, career experienced, goal driven, and reality certain. We are redesigning our Early College based on six programs of study. In this way, all coursework will be directly related to the career a student wants to pursue. For example, when a young person says he has an interest in medicine, we will set him on a pathway that feeds into the medical training available at JCTC and gives the student the knowledge that will allow him to transfer later to a four- year university.
Our plan is based on the concept of Career Academies, but takes it one step further. We will be aligning our pathways to include not only career experience, but also college experience. The six areas of study that we have outlined with Jefferson Community and Technical College are:
• General Arts and Humanities
• Culinary Arts
• Business, Communications and Tech
• Career- Tech
JCTC offers courses in each of these pathways, so we are in talks with these departments to further develop our ideas. For example, the chair of the Education Department wants to offer an educational theory course for our freshmen and sophomores. Later in their junior and senior years, students on the Education Pathway will take courses half-time and then full time on the college campus. We plan to follow the MCNC model of student support for college success by offering a side by side advisory program (University 111). Through this program, we will teach study skills and resume building, provide metacognitive supports and mentorships which include local business professionals. Some local businesses have already offered shadowing, internships and summer jobs to our students. One group has offered Western ECHS graduates with Associates in Arts degrees hiring priority. I see it as my mission to make sure that a career-college experience in one of these strands is available for each and every one of our students. This will make their reality certain.
How close is this vision to implementation?
The school district is in talks with superintendent to get approval for this plan. It makes sense to use this model to change the accountability measure of success to long-term criteria rather than the current practices of using a single test.
When the program is in full implementation, we envision limiting seats in each college pathway to 25 per grade or 150 per class. We understand the difficulties that our population comes to us with– low skills and negative academic experiences, so we are exploring extending the EC program to a fifth year to ensure greater success. We are hoping that the planning and discussions between academic, district, and business partners will be complete soon, so we can start next year with 30 students in each Pathway.
Ultimately, I see this model as benefitting more than just Western kids.
What opportunities and benefits to students and staff are currently available through your partnership with the college?
Students have full access to all college resources from their freshman year. JCTC, our college partner, has allowed the on-campus experience to expand to 150 students over the next 3 years.
We have another partner as well, the Louisville Rotarians, who have offered the Louisville Promise Rotary Scholarship for any student completing 60 credits. In order to qualify, our students must maintain a 2.5 GPA, have a 90% attendance rate, and have no major behavioral incidents during their high school career. The Rotarians will pay up to full tuition towards a third year at JCTC for our students. That’s the equivalent of $10,000.
How have you been able to maintain, expand and nurture the relationship with the college?
We honestly believe the reason the relationship is so successful is the communication between the stakeholders. We meet monthly as a board of directors to discuss programming needs, where student skills lie, and how to strengthen them. There are monthly meetings between dual credit professors and our teachers to steward the vision and expand the reach of the program to more young people.
Any last thoughts?
During my time here with the ECHS, we have recognized the need to be flexible and ever- changing. When problems present themselves, we see them not as obstacles, but as challenges to overcome to help more students.