Early College High School Prepares Students for Success
Ensuring that students are well-prepared for life after high school—whether in two- or four-year institutions or skilled occupations—requires more than just helping them fill out applications and take advanced courses. By doing the following, schools can help students build a set of skills, expectations, and beliefs that can put them on a strong postsecondary pathway:
- Increasing academic rigor, which includes working in teams, using project-based learning, using deductive reasoning, and creating solutions;
- Taking part in meaningful career exploration, including field-based opportunities;
- Creating a culture where parents, students, and educators see college and skilled careers in students' futures; and
- Giving students an understanding of college life and academic work.
These four postsecondary readiness components succeed best when K–12 districts, higher-education institutions, and industries work closely together to ensure that efforts articulate seamlessly for students from kindergarten through postsecondary experiences. Educate Texas (formerly known as the Texas High School Project) is a public-private partnership with the mission "to significantly improve the postsecondary readiness of low-income students with a focus on students in low-performing schools." By leveraging powerful partnerships with foundations, state agencies, and K–16 educators who support its goals, the partnership's team of experienced educators and policy experts has led innovative and high-quality instructional programming in some of the nation's most challenged districts.
Focusing on the Future Now
Among the programs Educate Texas supports to prepare and motivate more diverse students to consider college is the Early College High School Initiative, which allows students to earn college credits in high school. According to the district website, Hidalgo Independent School District (Hidalgo ISD) in the Rio Grande Valley border area of Texas serves more than 3,500 students, 98 percent of whom are Hispanic, with 91 percent considered economically disadvantaged. Over the past few years, the district has gained national recognition for its academic accomplishments, its ability to keep students in school, and its focus on college and skilled-career preparation. Hidalgo is one of the nation's first early college districts, meaning college preparation is a function of the entire K–12 program. To fulfill the district's mission of building lifelong learners and productive citizens, Hidalgo ISD partners with the University of Texas-Pan American, South Texas College, and Texas State Technical College to connect students to college and career and technical education.
The early college high school model blends high school and college into one coherent program that allows students to earn up to two years of college credit while they earn a high school diploma. Hidalgo ISD students sample different career options in middle school and select their career pathway upon entrance into high school. Sample career pathways include business and management administration, finance, information technology, health sciences, human services, protective services, and engineering, which are selected to match crucial industry shortages in the Hidalgo community, such as the need for bilingual nurses. Hidalgo ISD's program aims to meet the four essential postsecondary preparation components by using a variety of strategies. According to National Student Clearinghouse data, 52 percent of the Hidalgo ISD 2010 graduating class enrolled in college in the immediate fall semester. Of the 100 enrolled in college, 98 were attending a four-year college and 2 attending a two-year college.
Increasing Academic Rigor
Hidalgo ISD helps teachers increase instructional rigor and connect lessons to career pathways in practical and powerful ways. Through the Academic Leadership Alliance, a partnership between business and education leaders in the Rio Grande Valley, the district provides paid internships to up to four teachers a year to take summer jobs in engineering, restaurant management, technology and engineering (with Motorola), Hidalgo city management, and various aspects of hospital operations and practices. Teachers must write at least three lessons plans related to their three- to four-week experience, which helps them better tie their instruction to real issues in the business world. After working with local police doing routine patrolling, for instance, one teacher could tell his students how important writing is in the criminal justice field because writing detailed and accurate police reports are routine tasks.
Creating a College-Going Culture
Parents are a key factor in Hidalgo's approach to cultivating a college-going culture. Given that many Hidalgo families are first-generation immigrants with little or no experience with college, they often see it as an unfamiliar or unobtainable goal. Hidalgo ISD helps parents and students understand the potential of a college education by highlighting how it can lead to higher-paying jobs and by discussing the idea of college frequently with students.
The district's numerous programs help parents better support their children in school and see college in their children's future, including parent academies that offer English language instruction, GED study sessions, and workshops on understanding student reports and data. One principal meets with parents every Thursday, takes them to a restaurant, and recruits them to get involved in school activities like the yearbook, gym, or art.
To help students internalize the idea that they are college material, the district works many different angles to help students envision and realize their postsecondary options. Anyone walking into an elementary, middle, or high school in Hidalgo sees college banners hanging everywhere. At Hidalgo Early College High School, which boasts a 98.6 high school completion rate, a publicly posted list shows the different colleges where its graduates have been accepted.
Schools invite parents to "college pep rallies," which encourage students to be excited about colleges and occur at all school levels. One elementary school's rally was even hosted by kindergarteners who each recited facts about the college their class represented: Texas A&M University. Each class in the school selects a college to study and represent over the course of the year—which includes wearing college logo–emblazoned T-shirts once a week. At the rally, parents also wore logos, and everyone viewed a video with a message from Hidalgo graduates who were currently attending Texas A&M.
Students in Hidalgo have the opportunity to start seriously exploring potential career interests in middle school. Participation in assessments and exploratory courses, for example, exposes students to careers in robotics, environmental engineering, business, and medical professions, and allows students to identify their strengths and interests. Teachers also pull from career fields to build lessons so students see the relevance of what they learn in school. For example, one teacher from the pharmacology field helped students learn important medical terms, and then tied these to the scientific method as students considered the implications of certain drugs on patients. When the teachers brought them on a field trip to a hospital, the students were excited that they understand the terms and treatments discussed by the surgeon they met, who in turn was impressed at their level of interest and knowledge.
Taking College Courses
Students in Hidalgo experience college life by taking college-credit courses directly on local college campuses. Students are taught by a college instructor and expected to attend class regularly, be punctual, complete assignments, and pay attention. A college nursing course instructor explained that she expects students to self-identify when they are ready to "test" the performance of specific hands-on nursing skills. Just like regular college students, they are not given a second chance to pass one of the tests. Setting these expectations now, the instructor noted, is important to prepare students for the realities of college.
Teachers have seen students became more invested in their education when they select a potential career. On a recent bus trip from college to school, nursing students confirmed as much, saying that the nursing program had given them a concrete goal that helped them become much more serious about their high school and college coursework.
Hidalgo ISD still works on systemically raising the rigor of their courses and aligning them with college and career content, but that work is well under way. Hidalgo's districtwide program shows how schools have worked to embed college and skilled career preparation into their programs. This ensures K–12 students have all the necessary skills and opportunities to see themselves in a meaningful postsecondary experience and to look forward to becoming fully contributing adult members of the community and workforce. It's crucial that districts create strong, reciprocal partnerships with local two- and four-year colleges, as well as local businesses and community leaders, to develop a seamless and well-aligned system built on shared expertise that inspires students to build their future.
Heather Zavadsky is the director of research and implementation for Educate Texas of the Communities Foundation of Texas and author of School Turnarounds: The Essential Role of Districts (Harvard Education Press, 2012).
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 14. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.