In Gary, Indiana, only eleven percent of adults age 25 and over have a bachelor’s or associate’s degree. The town’s unemployment rate, 6.1%, is the lowest it has been since 2008 – yet is still significantly higher than the national average of five percent. In Gary and similar towns across America, the weight of poverty and the prospect of crippling college debt often prevent students from reaching beyond a high school degree.

As a result, students often lose drive to perform as well as they can in their high school classes. Unfortunately, dropping out of school often leads to unemployment rather than meaningful work.

A crucial goal of education, especially in a town like Gary, is teaching students to pursue higher education and career development beyond their time in high school. In Gary, 21st Century Charter School is helping its students not only to desire education after high school, but also to have the credits necessary to do so without taking on crushing higher education debt.

At the end of this academic year, eight students will graduate from 21st Century with associate’s degrees alongside their high school diplomas. On average, students possess thirteen college credits upon graduation –- earned at no cost to the student. Moreover, the number of students graduating with higher education degrees is increasing in each senior class. And one student, set to graduate in a couple years, will be the first student in Indiana history to leave high school with a full bachelor’s degree.

The secret to 21st Century’s success is two-fold: the school holds students to a high standard and it utilizes the community college resources in the city rather than offering expensive advanced coursework at its own school. The courses offered on 21st Century’s campus champion high standards to prepare students for college-level work. Eventually, students enroll in the local community college on a course-by-course basis once they have passed an exam that indicates they are ready for the experience.

Once enrolled in community college courses, students travel to the college campus for classes. This gives them a boost in confidence and a chance to experience the academic environment of a college campus. 21st Century’s role is to follow up with college professors about student performance and behavior, and to coach its students through the homework and demands of college courses. Once a student has fulfilled all the requirements to graduate with a high school degree, he or she can take more college courses — now with the added confidence that comes from earned success.

21st Century CEO Kevin Teasley says that this model can only take shape if administrators are willing to change school culture. Giving students the confidence to pursue higher education is no easy task, especially if those students know few or no adults who have earned higher degrees. The school recognizes that it must advocate on behalf of kids and coach them to surpass their previous expectations. Part of this is care, compassion, and coaching, and part of it is holding kids to a high standard. Teasley believes that our academic culture in America doesn’t challenge students enough. In his view, holding students to high standards is care and compassion, not a punishment.

For 21st Century, high standards and smart use of funds go hand in hand. 21st Century doesn’t bring in staff to teach many different courses. Instead, it finds that its resources are better utilized by paying for community college courses. “We staff ourselves so that [students] have to take college-level courses,” Teasley remarks. Paying for students’ college courses actually costs less than hiring full-time teachers at the high school level.

But it’s not just the school’s accounting books that benefit. Students have confidence in their ability to complete college when they leave 21st Century – and they also have a more manageable financial situation because of the credits they have already earned. The average thirteen credits that students graduate with are almost an entire college semester’s worth of classes. That can mean tens of thousands of dollars saved.

21st Century’s model is a win for both school finance and high standards for students. More importantly, by thinking creatively about its budget, it creates more options for its students and changes the culture of the town in which it operates. “The community has adopted our school,” says Teasley. In so doing, Gary, Indiana has taken the first steps to adopting a vision of upward mobility through earned success and higher education.