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GTECHS students find success in unconventional setting


Jill Savely, director of the Golden Triangle Early College High School in Mayhew, talks with Doug Phillips after speaking during the Tuesday meeting of the Columbus Rotary Club at Lion Hills Center.

Jill Savely, director of the Golden Triangle Early College High School in Mayhew, talks with Doug Phillips after speaking during the Tuesday meeting of the Columbus Rotary Club at Lion Hills Center. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff


Isabelle Altman



Six years ago, Jill Savely didn't know what an early college high school was. 


Now, the Mayhew-based school administrator oversees 175 high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors at Mississippi's first such program, the Golden Triangle Early College High School. Savely spoke to the Columbus Rotary Club at its weekly meeting Tuesday at Lion Hills.  


The school allows students looking for a different experience than the typical public high school to take dual-enrollment classes and potentially graduate with an associate's degree. It's modeled after North Carolina programs Savely visited in 2012 when she was working with the Mississippi Department of Education on ways to raise graduation rates in the state. 


"We talked to kids (at the early college high schools) when we were there, and for some reason, these kids were really connected to what was going on at school," Savely said. "Some of them for the first time." 


The early college high school model stuck with Savely, who worked with MDE and East Mississippi Community College to get GTECHS off the ground. It opened its doors to its first freshman class of 62 in 2015 on EMCC's Mayhew campus. Those students are on track to graduate in the spring 2019. 


GTECHS keeps small class sizes and a staff of only 10, seven of whom are teachers. Extra-curriculars like sports are eschewed in favor of college-level classes, of which the students take at least one each semester, with more piling on as students choose academic or career tracks. Some of the students already have 12 hours of college credit, Savely said. 


This year is the first year the juniors are taking multiple college courses in their chosen tracks, some of them as many as 16 hours.  


"Our juniors for most of the day are all over EMCC's campus," Savely said. 


EMCC professors told Savely and her staff the ideal college student has good critical thinking and writing skills. So in every high school level class, the teachers make sure the students "read, write, think and talk" -- a concept that's easy in a class like English or history but more difficult in something like Algebra I, Savely said.  


But the model has worked for the students, who all just wanted to start over in high school. Some of them needed more attention from teachers, some of them wanted to get a jumpstart on college and some of them just didn't like the schools they were in. 


"We've got a kid that's a junior right now who missed 18 days in his eighth grade year," Savely said. "He probably hasn't missed five days (since he's been here)." 


Right now, half the juniors are on track to graduate with an associate's degree -- though Savely hopes that number will grow over the next two years. 


And while Savely didn't touch on test scores during the club meeting, she told The Dispatch afterward that 100 percent of the juniors passed the state-mandated biology and English tests required for high school students, while 97 percent passed Algebra I and 90 percent passed U.S. History. The juniors will take the ACT this year, Savely said. 




Application process 


Her talked piqued the interest of Rotary Club members who asked her about everything from the application process to how Savely hires teachers to the biggest expense. 


The school spent about $35,000 on college textbooks this semester, Savely said. But with transportation provided by the students' home school districts and facilities provided by EMCC, the school operates on a relatively small budget. 


Savely also talked in-depth about the application process. She recruits eighth graders from Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and Noxubee counties every spring. Those eighth graders fill out applications and then come to campus with their families come for an interview. Barring any red flags -- the biggest example being parents who want their students to attend GTECHS more than their students want to go -- the students are selected randomly. 


There's a rigorous application process for teachers, as well, who send in a writing sample with their application. The applicant then sits through a round-table interview with the entire GTECHS staff to make sure that teacher can work as a member of the GTECHS team. The last step is for the applicant to actually teach a lesson in front of the students, Savely said.




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