In early college high school programs, disadvantaged students gain credits and the confidence to succeed
Flags from Rice, Cornell and the University of Texas line the sidewalk connecting classrooms at North Houston Early College High School for a reason: North, as the students call it, isn’t just encouraging its students to go to college – it’s enabling them to earn the credits to get there.
As part of an early college program, students at North work toward an associate degree while taking traditional classes to earn their high school diploma. Every day, the teenagers switch between teachers and professors, heading from their high school classrooms housed in trailers to Houston Community College’s Northline campus across the street.
North is one of five early college high schools in the Houston Independent School District and one of nearly 50 in Texas. In South Texas, just miles from the Mexican border, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District this fall became the first large district in the country to offer an early college curriculum to all its high school students. Nationwide, 280 high schools have adopted similar programs.
Since the first three early college high schools opened in the U.S. in 2002, the early college high school program has become increasingly popular as a way to transform the high school experience for disadvantaged students who have high potential for success. The idea is that introducing low-income, minority students to college coursework as early as ninth grade can help jump-start their higher education while saving them money, and it is spreading across the nation.
By the numbers
89: Percentage of low-income students at North Houston Early College High School
97.6: School’s four-year graduation rate
80: Percentage of students who leave with an associate degree
Nationwide, 90 percent of early college students graduate from high school, 10 percentage points above the national average, and 30 percent of students get either an associate degree or a certificate, according to Jobs for the Future, the Boston-based nonprofit that runs the national Early College Designs program. Research has shown that students selected for early college schools by a random lottery have higher high school graduation rates and college attainment levels than those who lose the lottery and attend a traditional high school.
Meeting the challenge
In Houston, North was the only HISD school to be named recently as one of the Department of Education’s National Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence. North received 800 student applications for 125 spots this year, allocated through a lottery system.
Ninety percent of North’s students are Hispanic, and 89 percent qualify as low-income.
Despite the challenges many of its students face, North has a four-year graduation rate of 97.6 percent. And more than 80 percent of those graduates leave high school with an associate degree; the rest finish with at least some college credit.
Some in higher education have questioned whether dual enrollment courses match the rigor of a traditional college class. In 2011, for instance, a professor at the University of Texas-Pan American told a local paper that the program set students up for failure at the university, which often receives students from the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD. Shortly after his remarks, however, university administrators released data showing that students who enter with prior college hours have higher grades, retention rates and graduation rates than those who do not.
In the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo district, Krystal Balleza is a recent graduate of the early college program at North High School. She’s all in favor of the district becoming universally early college. As a freshman, Balleza took a mandatory college-readiness class, which taught her how to take notes and got her started researching colleges, which made the previously theoretical idea of higher education seem much more real. No one else in her family had gone to college. Her dad came to the U.S. from Mexico hoping that someday his children would have more chances than he did. Her older brother graduated from high school, but stopped there. Inspired by his sister, though, he’s enrolled in college classes himself.
By sophomore and junior year, Balleza learned how to balance her time, to say no to going to the mall when college coursework was too demanding and to seek out help from South Texas College’s tutoring centers when calculus got too hard.
Although Balleza took several classes on the college campus, the majority of college courses that PSJA students take are done at their high school. Although occasionally college instructors will come to the high school, many of the courses are taught by high school teachers. They must meet the college’s criteria for teaching, including having at least a master’s degree, and going through the same hiring process as all other South Texas College faculty.
Balleza and other students said high school teachers, who are certified by the college and follow its curriculum, try to mimic a college environment in their college courses. They deliberately give the students more space and responsibility to remember assignments on their own.
Besides giving students a jump-start on college classes, early college high schools can save families thousands of dollars in tuition for the first two years of college.
“The goal is to ensure we tap into students who have never experienced college or whose parents haven’t gone to college,” said Angela Lundy-Jackson, principal at North Houston Early College High School. “We get them thinking about college and get them the education they deserve.”
This focus on the future is a high priority for students, faculty and administrators at North Houston.
“There is some extra drive to these students,” said history teacher Anna Kerr. “They for the most part understand the opportunity they have. That helps decrease discipline problems and increases the desire to learn.”
The classrooms at North Houston look just like those of any high school – posters of the scientific method on the wall, signs telling students to listen when others are talking and inspirational reminders that “winners exceed expectations.”
But across the street at HCC, sometimes the North students are alone among college students.
“First it was a little intimidating freshman year walking in, ‘Oh man, this is my first college class,’ ” said senior Aaron Reyes. “But after a while you get used to it and it doesn’t really feel much different.”
Administrators at North Houston refer to students’ enrollment as a “scholarship,” because even though it’s a public school, they get free tuition and books at a city college. This idea keeps students focused on higher education, even as they spend the first weeks of U.S. history studying traditional high school material such as the Declaration of Independence.
“Because they put us in an environment with other adults, they give us a more mature feeling that we’re going to have to get accustomed to when we get to universities,” said senior Sua Cruz, who will finish this year with her associate degree in arts.
In the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo district, officials say they’re more concerned with measuring their success by how students actually do in college and not on a standardized test. King acknowledges the goals are ambitious, but argues opening the program up to everyone is crucial to narrowing disparities in college attainment. “In general, most young people can do more than you think they can,” he said. “The idea that some kids get in, that’s not going to solve the problem.”
‘I worked for this’
As early college expands, the district has built in supports to help students during and after high school. It has become aggressive about making sure students are applying to colleges and filling out financial aid applications and encouraging them to think beyond their certificate or associate degree. It has also created advising programs to help graduating senior’s transition to colleges in the area, with district employees working on various campuses to help them through their freshman year.
Balleza won’t be able to take advantage of them; she’s headed farther away this fall, to Webster University in St. Louis to study wig and makeup design. Eventually she hopes to work on Broadway. With an associate degree in interdisciplinary studies, she’s got enough of a jump-start to double major.
It all seemed surreal until she took her place in line at South Texas College’s graduation in her cap and gown. “It hit me as soon as they said my name,” she said. “It’s a degree you’re getting. I worked for this.”
It was the day before her 18th birthday and two weeks before she’d walk across a different stage to collect her high school diploma.
The flags that line the sidewalk at North Houston aren’t just aspirational. Besides a few purchased before the school had a graduating class, the banners represent colleges that North students have attended since the first group of students graduated in 2012.
This message resonates with North’s students, along with the confidence they get from knowing they can succeed in college before they even graduate high school.
“Before, I was just going to settle for less,” Cruz said. “But I think it’s encouraged me to aim higher.”
This story was produced by the Houston Chronicle and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.