Three Big Lessons in Six Years: Launching and Sustaining Early College Pathways at Charlestown High School

Read the Lessons

Three Big Lessons in Six Years is both a reflection on the past and a look ahead to the future at Charlestown High School and other early college programs across the country. The purpose of this series is to document essential design elements, operational structures, and critical support for students to be successful. It also presents an authentic view of the troubleshooting required to overcome key initial challenges.

Lesson 1: Set a Vision to Guide the Future

Learn how the leaders involved in the launch of C-Town Pathways successfully brought together partners around a shared vision and non-negotiables.

Lesson 2: Build a Framework That Allows for Structure and Flexibility

Learn how the team at Charlestown High School created a structured early college pathways experience that also allows for flexibility and individualization of students’ early college journeys.

Lesson 3: Build a ‘Both/And’ Team

Learn how C-Town Pathways built a “both/and” team of staff that can both create a vision for the program and keep that program running through day-to-day challenges, ensuring its success.

About C-Town Pathways

When does a new school initiative stop being new? At what point, and after which bumps in the road, do staff find that they’re able to consistently replicate successes and avoid duplicating mistakes? One sign of reaching a good equilibrium is that leaders spend more time planning than reacting and take opportunities to reflect rather than dive into each day anew.

Six years in, the C-Town Pathways initiative at Charlestown High School (CHS) and Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) in Boston has hit its stride. Charlestown High School is an open enrollment school within Boston Public Schools that serves a diverse student body from across the city. The school also has a history of offering a range of progressive models and programming, including small learning communities, competency-based credit recovery programs, and comprehensive special education programs. These initiatives and a longstanding commitment to equity and access have contributed to its reputation as a site of innovation that serves all students.

As part of their goal to build the youth talent pipeline for the information technology industry, SAP , a global software company and JFF partner, approached CHS to sponsor and co-design the school’s first early college pathway, Information Technology. Partnership and generous funding from SAP propelled the launch of C-Town Pathways and has helped to sustain and grow the initiative through the present day. 

What started as an ambitious idea hatched around a conference table with visionary employer, SAP, the leader of CHS, a couple of committed BHCC deans and the president of BHCC, and JFF as the local intermediary, along with a class of grade 9 students willing to start high school and college at the same time, has blossomed into a transformative school model. Since the launch of the Information Technology Pathway in 2015, the school has added two additional pathways, Business and Health, and enrollment has grown to roughly 125 students across grades 9 to 12.

JFF’s headquarters in Boston is only a few miles from CHS. We’ve led early college high school initiatives across the country for nearly 20 years and have been fortunate to serve as a close partner and intermediary supporting the work at CHS from day one. We’ve worked side by side with CHS, BHCC, and SAP staff to convene meetings, develop strategic plans, design programming, and steward funding, and have even attended field trips and ordered pizza for students. This role has provided us unique insight into the type of leaders, mindsets, and work necessary to stand up early college pathways.

In addition to setting hundreds of students on a track to postsecondary education with dozens of free college credits in hand, C-Town Pathways has served as a case study for the state’s new early college high school designation process. But even as C-Town Pathways enrollment has grown and become more formally embedded in the school’s structure and culture, it continues to rely on the iterative learning process that has been central to its success.

About the Series

The successes, progress, and most important, lessons documented in Three Big Lessons in Six Years are a true testament to the talent and commitment of the educators and administrators involved. These lessons learned would not be complete without the voices of the school staff and students. Most of this insight and guidance comes from years of frequent check-ins, planning meetings, emails, surveys, and interviews with the indispensable CHS and BHCC staff who make early college happen.

The lessons—Set a Vision to Guide the Future, Build a Framework That Allows for Structure and Flexibility, and Build a ‘Both/And’ Team—represent three integral parts of C-Town Pathways’ journey. The three resources in the series can be read as standalone deep dives into key elements of C-Town’s model and operations, with a focus on transferable lessons. We see these resources as helpful to practitioners, especially school leaders who are interested in early college pathways and program staff who provide advising and work-based learning support. We also see these documents as useful to both private and public funders as they consider key elements of quality and success when investing in grantees.

This series was made possible by the Linde Family Foundation, whose continued support has allowed JFF a unique opportunity to share these best practices and important lessons. In documenting the clarity that comes with hindsight, but also the inevitability of learning as you go, our hope is that educators feel empowered to take informed risks while avoiding some of the growing pains and challenges CHS experienced along the way.