By the time they get to senior year, many students have had it with high school work, and in some cases, they’re able to find ways to take a few college courses early.
But here in sunny El Paso, nestled between two mountain ranges on the Mexican border, a unique and purposeful symbiosis has emerged among several of the city’s public school districts and its higher education institutions. Students in specialized programs—the majority of whom are Hispanic, first-generation college-goers, and from low-income families—can move fluidly from high school classes through an associate degree and on to university courses all between the 9th and 12th grades.
The result is that over the last seven years, more than 1,000 students who under business-as-usual circumstances might never have gone to college have graduated with or are working their way through four-year degrees, or even accelerated master’s programs. And nearly all those students left high school with at least two years of college work—and college costs—behind them.
“This is a pathway for students who don’t want the big social high school with the cheerleading and all the stuff that goes with it,” said Donna Ekal, the associate provost for undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, who coordinates the early-college program. “They want an education—no frills. ... [It’s] an opportunity for them to do that in a way where their peer groups are supportive and the bar is high.”
El Paso currently has nine early-college high schools, which are the small, accelerated programs these students attend starting in 9th grade. Across the country, there are about 300 early-college high schools—more than half of which are in Texas. The education department has been supportive of dual enrollment for high school and college, according to a March 2016 report by the national nonprofit Jobs for the Future. The cross-school partnerships in El Paso are verging on being “a truly seamless system from grade 9 through the bachelor’s degree,” the report says, and they “hold lessons for early-college advocates and leaders.”
While about a third of students attending early-college high schools nationally come out of 12th grade with an associate degree, in El Paso, nearly every early-college student gets one before graduating from high school.
In the beginning of the program, just the community colleges were working with the early colleges. But many students were finishing their associate degree and continuing to accumulate community college credits that would not transfer to a university. So starting five years ago, UTEP got involved as well. Now, students who finish their associate degree with time to spare can start working on a bachelor’s degree right away.
Several of El Paso’s early-college high schools are located right next to an El Paso Community College campus, though a few are in more remote areas, requiring students to be transported by bus to the community college.
The way it generally works is: As freshmen and sophomores, early-college students take a series of advanced courses, including one that teaches study skills and organization. Some take a community college class the summer after 9th grade, jumping right into higher education. In 11th grade, students start heading over to the community college for part of the school day. Senior year, students who’ve completed the 60 credits for an associate degree go to the university campus part time.
The community college system waives tuition and fees for early-college students who attend classes there, and the students’ school district generally pays for textbooks. Students who go to UTEP while still in high school and maintain a 3.0 grade point average receive scholarships from the university.
Targeting At-Risk Students
Class schedules, curricula alignment, degree requirements, transportation, and finances pose ongoing challenges for administrators at all the involved schools. The intricate partnerships that enable this work have developed over the past decade and are continually evolving.
Logistically, it’s a heavy lift. “There’s three entities I have to keep track of, and there’s only one of me,” said Gustavo Alvarado, the counselor at the 480-student Mission Early College High School, referring to the district, the community college, and the university.
Alvarado works with a counselor at the Mission community college campus, right across the parking lot, to iron out scheduling and credit issues. A couple of years ago, UTEP opened an academic center that specifically supports early-college students—and that’s made a huge difference in that relationship. Now, rather than going through UTEP’s registrar or financial-aid office, Alvarado goes through a single contact in that office.
As the city seeks to expand the early-college program to accommodate growing interest, a new hurdle has come up: There are no more stand-alone buildings for the early-college high schools. Now, the system is moving to a school-within-a-school model, in which an early college is located at a traditional high school. And because co-located schools often share administrators and work on a similar bell schedule, that’s causing a host of new coordination challenges.
“You think, ‘We can do that,’ and then you start asking, and there’s 147 questions per issue,” said Ekal of UTEP. “That’s also the beauty of the system. I have no doubt we’ll figure out how to do this.”
Erick Ramos, a 12th grader at Mission ECHS, said he was an “average, or a little below average” student in middle school. He heard about the early-college program from Mission students who waited for the bus at his middle school. “I had my doubts, because I had all these friends I knew were going to go to the normal high school,” he said. “But I decided to still give it a try. … I just wanted to be challenged.”
In Texas, early-college high schools don’t look for students already labeled gifted or even those getting excellent grades. In fact, the state blueprint for early-college high schools requires that the programs “target and enroll students who are at risk of dropping out of school.”
That includes students who are economically disadvantaged and whose parents didn’t attend college.
At Mission ECHS, the oldest early college in the city, there is an application process, but it prizes interest in the program, middle school attendance, willingness to take on challenges, and activity in extracurricular clubs and organizations.
The first year at the early-college high school is the hardest, Mission students say. Students stay on the high school campus but take two dual-credit courses, which count toward both high school and college credit. Courseloads often include Algebra 2 and pre-Advanced Placement science and history classes.
“You have to learn a lot of time management,” said Jimena Maciel, a senior at Mission ECHS. “We have to try to balance high school, college, and our social lives.”
And that first year, every student takes Education 1300, a class that teaches organization, note-taking, and self-advocacy—skills that students will need in the college setting.
Every teacher at Mission ECHS has a master’s degree, which is required to teach dual-credit courses in the state.
“We have a high level of expertise compared to a traditional campus,” said Principal Jason Long. “We don’t have any generalists. All the teachers are specialists in their field.”
Professional development at Mission ECHS revolves around a defined set of best practices—teachers focus on structured group work, classroom conversation, and writing critically with evidence.
By attending an early college like Mission, students do give up some typical high school traditions. There are no athletic teams, though students can often eventually play sports through the community college. There’s no large high school band or orchestra, but students can learn an instrument after school. Prom, if there is one, is a small affair.
For many students, however, that alternative experience is a draw. “I didn’t see myself in a regular high school,” said Karina Martinez, a senior at Mission ECHS who attends UTEP. “I didn’t see myself in a bigger environment playing any sports or anything. This is smaller, and everyone is focused on the future, and that’s what I want.”
Another draw is being able to get at least two years of college credits for free while still in high school. “I think about how much I’m helping my mom financially. It motivates you a lot to keep studying,” said Karina.
A New Model
But with space now at a premium, newer early colleges are having to pave their own way.
Opened less than two years ago, Burges Early College High School is in many ways an experiment in how to bring the concept to scale. The 230-student early college is located on the same campus as the 1,400-student Burges High School, in the El Paso Independent school district. Students are all from the immediate neighborhood, and interested students are chosen to attend by lottery.
The early college opened with a single freshman class and is adding a grade each year, so for now, it has no juniors or seniors. Because of that, the early college largely follows the same schedule as the full high school, and students can still attend gym classes at the high school and play in the band and on sports teams.
Much of that may need to change, though, as students become juniors and start taking community college courses, said Margie Nelson-Rodriguez, the early-college high school coordinator for El Paso Community College. “They’ll need to get on block scheduling [with 90-minute periods to allow for travel], and that’s going to be a challenge,” she said.
The school also needs to find more dual-credit teachers—those who are certified to teach both high school and college classes. So far, the early college has mainly relied on teachers at the traditional high school who happen to have dual-credit certification.
Randall Woods, the principal for both the traditional high school and the early college, said a number of unexpected issues have come up as well—questions around implementing individualized education plans in dual-credit classes and whether dual-credit teachers should have conferences with parents.
But teachers at the early college say the courses are rigorous and that they’re pleased with the results so far. “Regular high school is like a second middle school,” said Victoria Torres, who teaches dual-credit U.S. History at Burges ECHS. “But I’m teaching them how to do term papers and annotated bibliographies. They’re not going to get that in high school. ... [Here] they have a goal: ‘I’m going to college.’ ”
Safety and Social Implications
Perhaps the toughest pill to swallow for some parents and educators about the early-college program is that it puts 16- and 17-year-old students in classes with people who are five years or even a decade older than they are.
“We did worry in the beginning,” said UTEP’s Ekal. “Of course, some students are under 18—it’s something we’re aware of and certainly don’t want anything to happen.”
Five years in, she said, no problems have come to her attention. “It’s a university, it’s different, it’s bigger, but they’re doing OK.”
Students say they do sometimes get a reaction when they walk into a community college or UTEP class. “A lot of them just stare at you,” said Jimena, the Mission student. “They think we’re geniuses, like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so smart!’ ”
Interestingly, some students also say they end up becoming leaders in their college classes—both because Mission ECHS prepared them well for rigorous, collaborative work, and because being younger than the typical students offers a confidence boost.
By the end of a physics course at the community college, “everyone was calling me the coordinator,” said Jimena, who is studying mechanical engineering at UTEP as a 12th grader and eventually wants to go into aerospace engineering. “They’d say, ‘Don’t worry, guys, the coordinator’s got this.’ I take initiative and try to tell my college peers, ‘If I can do this, you guys can do this.’”
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