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Early-College High Schools: ‘Why Not Do It for All the Kids?’

By Joel Vargas — January 07, 2011 5 min read
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Hidalgo, Texas, has one of the most successful school systems in the United States. The dropout rate is nearly zero, and the high school regularly lands on a top-school list published by U.S. News & World Report. Last June, when members of the high school graduating class crossed the stage to receive their diplomas, 95 percent of them could proudly point to their college credits as well. Two-thirds of the graduating seniors had earned at least a full semester of credits toward a college degree.

It’s time for the nation to pay attention when any community boasts results like these. These are especially remarkable in one of the most economically depressed areas of the United States, just across the Rio Grande River from Mexico, with one of the lowest number of college-educated adults. Nine out of 10 students in the high school are considered economically disadvantaged, 99.5 percent are Hispanic, and 53 percent entered with limited proficiency in English.

The story of Hidalgo is not only one of success, but of turning around an entire school district. In the late 1980s, student achievement in Hidalgo ranked in the bottom 10 percent in Texas. But local leaders took giant steps to improve student performance, and they gained support from every segment of the surrounding community. Over the next two decades, everyone—from bus drivers to principals, from teachers to school board members—began to focus on doing what it takes to raise the achievement levels of all 3,500 young people in the Hidalgo schools.

“You can’t be afraid of change,” says school board President Martin Cepeda. “It starts from the superintendent all the way to the custodians. ... Everybody counts. Everybody.”

One key to the turnaround came when Daniel King, the superintendent of the school district at the time, enlisted four partners: the University of Texas-Pan American, the University of Texas System, the Communities Foundation of Texas/Texas High School Project, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Together, the partnership formulated an innovative plan to create an “early-college high school.”

Over the next two decades, everyone—from bus drivers to principals, from teachers to school board members—began to focus on doing what it takes to raise the achievement levels of all 3,500 young people in the Hidalgo schools.”

The early-college design is a vehicle for providing traditionally underserved students with an opportunity to earn a substantial number of college credits along with a high school diploma. Students spend fewer years and less money achieving a college credential. Hidalgo took this cutting-edge idea and extended it: By embedding a college and career culture in everyday activities, from elementary school through middle school and into high school, the school system motivates all of its students to believe that they can and will go on to postsecondary education.

The partnership committed to ensuring that all Hidalgo students, not just a select group, would attend the early-college high school, and all would earn college credits before graduating from high school. “I can’t see taking half of the kids and leaving the other half out,” King reflected. “Why not do it for all the kids?”

Hidalgo elementary schools begin the journey by making college a visible presence: College banners decorate hallways and classrooms, students wear donated college T-shirts, and each class adopts a college as a research project. Recently, Arnulfo Ninal’s 10-year-old declared: “ ‘I’m going to Michigan when I go to college. I want to be a Wolverine.’ ”

“That didn’t happen before,” said Ninal, who is a math teacher at the high school in addition to being a parent. “There’s a big shift as a district toward college, college, college.”

In middle school, students start visiting college campuses and contemplating career paths. All middle schoolers identify at least one area of academic interest and prepare to take pre-Advanced Placement courses in it. Eighth graders take a course focusing on career pathways. They also meet with counselors to make plans for high school, including which college courses they expect to take. Middle school teachers know how to prepare students for high school courses, and high school teachers know how to prepare them for college.

With partnerships with the University of Texas-Pan American, South Texas College, and Texas State Technical College, the high school challenges the students to take as many college-level courses as possible while also offering pathways to postsecondary credentials. And in both middle school and high school, ever-present tutoring helps students when they need extra time and encouragement through tough subjects.

Hidalgo is not done yet. “The starting line is right behind our heels,” said Edward Blaha, the current superintendent of schools. “There’s miles to go, but we know we’ve stepped onto the right track, because this is good for kids.”

Communities across the country are seeking ways to give students a reason to stay in school and the means to do so. As a school district serving at-risk, low-income English-language learners, Hidalgo has shown success in preparing all students for college that has implications the nation cannot afford to ignore. School districts can take steps with their comprehensive high schools to put the support systems, rigorous curriculum, and strong instruction in place to propel far more young people to postsecondary success.

This is not to downplay the hard work that is involved, including strategies for financing college courses as part of the high school experience. Hidalgo’s efforts to extend this experience to all its students have been made possible by favorable state policies, strong college partners, and the ingenuity of past and current district leaders to create a cost-effective, high-quality early-college design.

Some early colleges nationally have been challenged to find the right combination, but even in an era of tight education budgets, most have thrived, and the movement is growing. As the results from Hidalgo demonstrate, that effort is worth it. In an era when a college degree, not just a high school diploma, should be the goal for all students, early-college high schools are a better investment of taxpayer dollars than traditional high schools.

Consider how proud Robert Ruiz, Hidalgo’s salutatorian for the class of 2010, sounded after passing his first college course in chemistry. “If I could do that, I knew I could pass any college class,” he said. “Many people fear college. We learned that we can do it.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Early-College High Schools: ‘Why Not Do It for All the Kids?’

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