Antonio Hernandez-Blanco was doing well at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, a magnet school with academic admission standards. But when he seized the chance to move to Cato Middle College High as a junior, he found himself in a whole new environment.
Now hes among 200 high school students, all capable of doing college-level work, who share classrooms with older students at Central Piedmont Community College. Its exciting and a bit humbling, says Antonio, a 17-year-old senior.
I try definitely a lot harder here, he said. He has been accepted at UNC Chapel Hill and is awaiting word from Duke University.
As Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison seeks to expand options for students, Cato Middle College serves as a model. Six years after it was created, the small application-only CMS school for 11th- and 12th-graders has built a strong academic track record and sends graduates off with college course credits that can save on university costs.
Cato is now taking applications for 2013-14.
The lure is clear: Tuition-free classes from CPCC and a small setting with high-achieving classmates.
The drawbacks are just as obvious: Halfway through high school, students must leave behind their old classmates and social scene to go to Cato.
That didnt appeal to Temilade Aladeniyi, who was happy at Mallard Creek High last year. But her dad pushed her to apply. She has three older sisters in college, including one in law school and one in medical school, so she understood the appeal of earning credits that could shrink her college costs.
Temilade, now a 16-year-old junior, says she was won over at an open house, when she saw how friendly the students were. She drives back to play soccer at Mallard Creek, and says she has no regrets about spending her school days at Cato. Theres never a dull moment, she says.
Power of place
Cato is not a magnet. The formal label is cooperative innovative high school, a program launched by the state to create high schools on college campuses.
Cato Middle College High opened on the northeast Charlotte CPCC campus of the same name in 2007. Students spend 4 1/2 hours a day taking required high school classes from six CMS teachers. All are taught at the honors or Advanced Placement level. Before and after, they take college classes.
The opportunity to earn free credits is not unique; the state offers that option to all high school students. CPCC currently has more than 500 other CMS students taking classes at various campuses, along with about 240 from other area high schools.
But Cato offers what Jimmy Chancey, CMSs career-technical director, calls the power of place. By the time they earn a high school diploma, students feel at home navigating a college schedule and taking responsibility for their own time.
The credits transfer to any school in the N.C. university system. Principal Joey Burch says most graduates have enough to skip a year of college. One graduated with an associates degree and a high school diploma.
Who gets in
Last year, Cato seniors had average SAT scores that were topped only by three large, high-performing CMS schools: Providence, Ardrey Kell and Myers Park.
Catos graduation rate was 100 percent perhaps not surprising, given that most dropouts stall in ninth or 10th grades. Getting into Cato requires passing scores on state exams, a grade-point average of at least 2.5 and a good behavior record. Applicants must also pass Accuplacer college readiness tests.
Burch, who came to Cato two years ago from North Mecklenburg High, said the admission requirements are tough enough to make sure students can handle the work, but not as exclusive as many believe. I dont have, like a lot of people think, all the valedictorians and salutatorians in CMS, he said.
His small student body blends teens from a variety of family and educational backgrounds.
Ghallia Kaouk, 16, attended Charlotte International School, a charter, and the private Charlotte Islamic School before coming to Cato. She says her parents worried about the environment and student behavior at public schools, but Cato felt different. And the credits will give her a jump start when she goes to UNC Charlotte to study physics.
Bryant Patterson, an 18-year-old senior, works two jobs while studying at Cato including morning shifts before his classes start at 11:40 a.m. Thats a big change from other CMS high schools, which start at 7:15.
Bryant had been at West Charlotte and North Mecklenburg high schools, where he felt like few of his classmates cared about school as much as he did. I could sleep through half the class and still pass with an A, he said.
At Cato, counselors steered him toward work in computer security. After graduation, he plans to stay at CPCC, finish an associates degree and get a job.
More to come?
Getting students better prepared for college and careers is one of Morrisons top goals. He also describes goals of tailoring schools to individual student needs, creating challenges for top students, offering families more choices and forging partnerships with colleges and universities.
Cato touches on each of those fronts. CMS officials, with help from volunteer task forces, will be fleshing out plans in the coming months.
CPCC considers the partnership with CMS a success and would be interesting in creating more high schools, said spokesman Jeff Lowrance. The biggest constraint: CPCC enrollment is booming, so its hard to find space.
Burch took the Cato job with a mission to reach the 200-student cap. He laughs about the contrast: He led North Meck during the peak of its overcrowding, when it had 3,200 students.
This year Cato filled, though he had to keep recruiting after the application period closed.
For 2013-14, Burch hopes interest bumps up to the point that he has to hold a lottery.
Cato isnt for everyone, he says. But hes pretty sure its a good fit for at least 100 new students.