By Haley Schukei
Providing students the opportunity to graduate from college, even before they finish high school, is gaining momentum throughout East Texas.
“What we’re doing is literally taking 8th-grade students and saying, ‘do you want to graduate from high school with both a high school diploma and your associate degree?’” said Katherine Elmore, TJC’s director of School District Partnerships.” And they have to commit to that.”
Early College High School blends high school and college work to enable students to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree or 60 college credit hours toward a baccalaureate degree.
This model is gaining national attention due to its success in raising high school graduation and college retention rates for students at risk of not graduating. The program provides student support systems, including tutoring, counseling and mentoring.
The criteria to be eligible for early college high school actually contradicts what most would expect.
Early College High School is a school reform model that targets students who might not otherwise achieve post-secondary success and works to reduce those barriers.
“You’re not just choosing the very best students you have. You’re picking the students who are low-socioeconomic, first-generation college students, that come from single-parent families who are at risk of not graduating with the cohort that they started with in ninth grade,” said Elmore.
The application process includes interviews and a writing sample, surveys that must be completed by potential students and their parents and recommendations from teachers.
Circumstances, such as failing a grade on a state exam at any point, if they are pregnant or are already a parent, if they are bilingual and need ESL (English as a Second Language) support or if they have dropped out of school and come back, are flattering to their application.
“In this case, those would actually be positive points for them because they are more at risk than the student who has six parents and grandparents who all have been to college,” said Elmore.
Some students are born with what’s referred to as four-one or six-one support systems, meaning both parents have been to college as well as both sets of grandparents, so they have up to six people who could potentially help them work through the systems of what it takes to get into college.
Students considered for an ECHS program do not.
“So they don’t have any kind of background knowledge of how to fill out a college application, or a FAFSA or how to prepare to manage the system of what it takes to get into college,” said Elmore. “We’ve shown them how to study, how to work the system, how to manage their life in a much different way than their family has ever been exposed to.”
TJC began collaborating with Tyler Independent School District six years ago and has since partnered with Chapel Hill Independent School District, as well.
“The partnership between Tyler Junior College and Chapel Hill ISD gives our Chapel Hill Collegiate students the opportunity to earn an Associate Degree by the time they graduate from high school. What a wonderful opportunity,” said Karen Bender, administrator for Chapel Hill Collegiate Early College High School and the district’s Alternative School programs.
Many students would not have the chance of obtaining such a dream without the foresight of the Administrations of Tyler Junior College and Chapel Hill ISD.
“It’s the realization that we have a population of students who are not being served; who have no hope of going to college unless someone comes alongside them and supports them in that endeavor,” said Elmore.
According to Elmore, it takes years to develop a model that fits a school district.
For example, CHISD opted, for reasons such as space and personnel, to have a “school within a school.” Students are still able to participate in extracurricular activities, yet they take their core classes with the ECHS students, away from the other students at the school.
TISD, however, opted for an entirely separate campus. Because of this, ECHS students in Tyler are not able to participate in extracurricular activities.
“They started out trying to allow those students to participate in their extracurricular activities before and after school but the scheduling was such that they may leave at 5:30 or 6 in the morning, they would go to practice, to school and then they would go back to practice and it was becoming a 12-hour day. Plus two hours of homework each night,” said Elmore. “Imagine that when you’re 14, as opposed to when you’re 18 or 19, it wasn’t working as smoothly and efficiently as TISD wanted it to.”
Because asking a 14-year-old to have the discipline, the maturity and the skills to manage a system that they never grew up in and never prepared for, Elmore uses one word to describe Early College High School in its entirety – touchy.
Students are not only learning their high school coursework or just their college coursework, they’re also trying to manage the unspoken social rules that go along with two different entities.
“In today’s world, a college degree is a necessity, not a luxury. TJC, along with Chapel Hill Collegiate, continue to dream big. Education definitely matters,” said Bender. “A college degree can change our student’s lives, the lives of their families now and the lives of their future families. It changes them, gives them hope for a brighter future — literally changes their lives.”