Students walk in Greenville Tech Charter High School’s courtyard in between exams. Photo by Will Crooks.

In 1999, Greenville Tech Charter High School opened its doors.

Now, 99 percent of its students graduate on time — one of the highest rates in South Carolina — and it has some of the highest test scores in the Upstate.

At the time, it was unlike any high school in the state and came just a few years after middle college schools gained traction nationwide.

Thomas Barton, the founding president of Greenville Technical College, started Greenville Tech Charter High School (GTCHS) with role models in mind — Middle College High School, located on LaGuardia Community College’s campus in New York, was the first school of its kind to open in the United States in 1974. It kick-started a movement that gained momentum with the creation of the Middle College National Consortium in 1993.

Now, the consortium boasts 50 schools across the country, with funding from major donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The goal of middle and early colleges is to reduce dropout rates and increase student access to college through small high schools on college campuses, with an emphasis on first-in-family college students.

It’s because the model requires a small environment that two additional middle college high schools opened in Greenville County less than a decade after GTCHS — in the first few years of its opening, hundreds of interested students landed on the school’s waitlist with only 100 open seats per year. Rather than expanding the school, they replicated it.

“Dr. Barton first thought about amending the charter and just making it larger,” said Fred Crawford, former longtime principal of GTCHS and current principal of Greer Middle College High School. “You don’t really have that intimate setting with a larger school.”

In 2006, Brashier Middle College Charter High School opened in downtown Greenville before moving to the Brashier campus of Greenville Technical College in Simpsonville, and in 2008, Greer Middle College opened on the college’s Benson campus.

GTCHS and the Meyer Center both fight for the title of longest-standing charter school in South Carolina — the Meyer Center transitioned from a private school to a charter school in 1998, but GTCHS opened as a charter school from the beginning in 1999.

In its 20-year history, it has gone through leadership changes, quarrels with Greenville County Schools, and most recently, a change in sponsors. All three schools are sponsored by the South Carolina Public Charter School District after transferring from Greenville County Schools in 2016 and 2017.

Now, the school — along with Brashier and Greer Middle College — have the highest report card scores of all Greenville County high schools.

Photo by Will Crooks.

Mary Nell Anthony, principal of GTCHS, said 62 percent of students at the Greenville campus graduate high school with 24 or more college credits — the equivalent of a student’s first year of college.

The high school is still primarily in Building 119 on Greenville Technical College’s Barton Campus.

“It’s just an old college building that was converted to a high school,” Anthony said.

Students at each of the middle college schools have dress codes to set them apart from the college’s students — they’re easily spotted by their khakis and school-colored polos.

While all three schools sit at the top of the county’s rankings and partner with Greenville Technical College to offer college courses, they’re unique in different ways.

GTCHS — the most central in the county — is the only of the three schools to offer music courses.

Brashier, at the southern end of the county, has a newer facility set apart from the college’s campus. It boasts the highest academic and report card scores of the schools.

Greer Middle College sits in the newest facility of the three schools on the northern side of Greenville County. The school offers all of the athletic teams the other middle colleges offer as well as tennis, golf, and fishing.

Every year the schools choose new students through a lottery system — each school’s enrollment is capped at 440.

While the schools perform higher than any of the traditional high schools in the county, there are services traditional schools offer that charters don’t — the schools don’t have a bus system to transport students, although many parents coordinate through carpools, and lunch varies depending on the vendors and parent volunteers who serve it each week.

The schools also require students to complete community service hours each year and earn a score of 80 or higher to pass classes, contrary to the state’s passing score of 60 or higher after the South Carolina Department of Education switched to a 10-point grading scale in 2016.

“We looked at [changing] it, and our board decided to stay at an 80,” said Mike Sinclair, principal of Brashier. “In anything, 80 percent is kind of mastery.”

Each school, and even individual teachers within the schools, handles students who fall below an 80 differently. Some classes provide students with makeup tests or quizzes; others require them to retake the class if their grade is far below passing.

“It’s very important to me that my teachers feel that they are trusted professionals,” Anthony said. “You hire good people, and you let them do their jobs.”

Autonomy is a buzzword in the charter community — charter schools primarily exist to have more autonomy than traditional public schools. For Greenville Tech’s middle college high school, it’s paid off.

All three schools scored an 80 or higher overall on their 2018 report cards, the highest in the county with the exception of the Governor’s School for Arts and Humanities. The next highest score in the county was Riverside High School, which had a score of 71 on the report card.

Nearly all of the schools’ students graduate within four years — 96 percent of Greer’s students, 98 percent of Brashier’s, and 99 percent of GTCHS students, compared with the statewide graduation rate of 81 percent.

“It’s important as middle colleges that we look at ourselves and our performance,” Sinclair said. “I don’t necessarily think we’re better than another school because our scores look better or our report cards are better.”

For Sinclair, larger schools have their own benefits — more course options, Advanced Placement classes — but he’s not comparing Brashier to those schools.

“We feel very good about our performance, and we work very hard to serve our smaller population,” Sinclair said. “Greenville County is blessed with choice.”

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