For at-risk students who stand little chance of going to college, or even finishing high school, a growing number of districts have found a solution: Give them an early start in college while they still are in high school. An early college high school (ECHS) strategy, which combines high school and college-level instruction, reduces dropout rates and improves academic achievement levels while also boosting students' chances of graduating from school and finding jobs.
About 86 percent of early college high school graduates in 2009 went on to some form of postsecondary education, according to Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit that is spearheading a national Early College High School Initiative. That compares with about 66 percent of all high school graduates nationally who enrolled in college immediately after high school in 2006, the latest year for which data is available from the National Center for Education Statistics.
In a letter to schools and organizations celebrating Early College High School Week last March, President Barack Obama wrote, "By exploring innovative solutions to the challenges confronting our nation's education system, projects like the Early College High School Initiative help ensure all our students can succeed."
Administrators in districts with an early college high school report dramatic results. In the Las Cruces (N.M.) Public Schools, for example, all of the 112 students in the inaugural ninth-grade class at the district's Arrowhead Park Early College High School, the first ECHS in the state, completed the academic year last spring. "That's a major objective. My largest dropout group usually is ninth-graders," declares Superintendent Stan Rounds.
At J.D. Clement Early College High School in the Durham (N.C.) Public Schools, the graduation rate now is 95 percent, compared to a districtwide average of 74 percent, reports Durham Superintendent Eric J. Becoats. In final exams last year, 89 percent of students in the school met end-of-course standards, compared to as few as 47 percent in the district's traditional schools, he adds.
J.D. Clement is one of 74 early college high schools in North Carolina, the state with the highest number of such schools, says Tony Habit, president of the North Carolina New Schools Project, a public-private partnership that works to develop innovative high schools in the state. Last year, 46 of North Carolina's schools reported no dropouts, and a growing number of the schools reported graduation rates above 95 percent, he adds.
A recent study of ninth-graders from North Carolina's Early College High Schools conducted by SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro suggests that early college schools are closing gaps between minority and white students. According to "Expanding the Start of the College Pipeline: Ninth-Grade Findings from an Experimental Study of the Impact of the Early College High School Model," the early results from the study show that this model is making substantial progress toward creating an environment where all students graduate from high school prepared for college and work. The schools that have adopted this model are also creating environments that result in better attendance and fewer suspensions.
The ECHS movement that began with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 10 years ago has grown from a handful of schools to at least 230 schools now, serving more than 50,000 students in 28 states, reports Joel Vargas, vice president of High School through College, a national Jobs for the Future program. The Gates Foundation began supporting small schools, a sort of precursor to early college schools, on a broad-ranging, intensive national basis in the late 1990s. Among its early grants, it awarded $12 million to the Chicago Public Schools in September 2001 to support converting five large high schools into autonomous small schools, each with no more than 400 students. In 2009, in his first annual letter about his work at the foundation, Bill Gates stated that the foundation had spent approximately $2 billion in the previous 10 years supporting a small schools initiative nationally.
While small schools generally serve all their students, the ECHS movement advances the small schools initiative by focusing on providing opportunities specifically for at-risk students. In most cases, they apply and are selected by lottery for slots that often are limited by the number of applicants and the limited 100-student per grade size. Most graduate after four years with both a high school diploma and college credits—often with an associate degree—that they can transfer to a four-year higher education institution.
Some early college schools serve multiple districts, but the total number of districts nationally with students in an early college school is unknown. Early college high schools can also be referred to as "middle colleges" in some districts, says Cecilia Cunningham, executive director of the Middle College National Consortium in Long Island City, N.Y., an organization with 35 member schools. The middle college concept developed about 35 years ago, Cunningham says, and with the influx of Gates Foundation money, the schools became better known as ECHS. As districts established more of them, the name ‘ECHS' stuck. Vargas says middle colleges were not designed originally with a college credit goal for students. Students may have taken college courses, but this was not by design, he explains.
Many districts operate dual-enrollment programs, with students enrolled in high school and college at the same time, but they are designed to provide a head start for students who are planning to go to college anyway, Vargas says. The ECHS movement is aimed principally at students who face "more and higher barriers," Vargas says, because they are in racial and ethnic minorities and often are English language learners from low-income families with no previous college experience.
In partnership with nearby higher education institutions, mostly two-year community colleges, districts have designed special schools, usually on the college campuses, although some are freestanding district schools. Starting in ninth grade, ECHS students receive a rigorous education from both high school teachers and college instructors, with courses often focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects to meet regional workplace needs after the students graduate. Grades usually are limited to about 100 students, consistent with the Gates Foundation's smaller schools approach.
Early College for All
In 2007, when Daniel P. King became superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (Texas) Independent School District, in the Rio Grande Valley on the Texas-Mexico border, almost 500 high school students annually were dropping out. King decided to ensure that every one of the 31,500 students would meet college and career-ready standards and earn at least 12 college credits. Last year, the district made substantial progress toward this goal: Only 100 students left, while the graduation rate jumped from 62 percent to 86 percent over the same period. The district's three ECHS schools have partnered with South Texas College. The district's T-STEM Early College High School opened in 2008 with a curriculum that focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. After being housed in portable buildings and the wing of another school, it moved into its own permanent campus this fall. A second ECHS is North Early College High School, a "school within a school" the district opened last fall that shares a building with a traditional high school, but is segregated in its own wing.
With a $2 million grant from the Texas Education Agency, the district is converting an existing traditional school, Southwest High School, to an ECHS for all the school's students. According to King, this is being done because virtually the entire Pharr-San Juan-Alamo student population fits the profile for which the ECHS concept was initially designed: 99 percent of the students are Hispanic, about 90 percent are economically disadvantaged, and about 70 percent of students come from homes where Spanish is either the primary language or the only one spoken. "Anyone in this district who wants one will have an opportunity," King says. And every ninth-grader in the district will be in one of these three early college programs.
Six years ago, King took that same approach in the Hidalgo (Texas) Independent School District, where he was superintendent. The Hidalgo district, in the lower Rio Grande Valley, has about 3,400 students, and more than 95 percent of Hidalgo's class of 2010 graduated, with a combined total of 3,700 college credit hours.
"We're seeing districts becoming more interested in adopting an ‘early college for all' approach as a college readiness strategy," says Vargas. He sees a trend toward ensuring that all students, not just those at risk, "get critical core college-level work by the time they graduate high school."
The Pharr-San Juan-Alamo district's approach, as in many other districts, begins with all the schools adopting the early college mission and making academic, cultural and structural changes. If students are to succeed academically when they have not before, changing the academic culture will be necessary, but that's not sufficient to reach college readiness for all, according to Vargas and LaVonne Sheffield, associate vice president for early college expansion at Jobs for the Future. Changing the academics creates the space to change culture and structure, Vargas adds. (Read about the specific principles in design in the related article, "Design Principles for Early College High School".)
Instruction is centered around a common framework: six instructional strategies used in concert with one another, developed by Jobs for the Future and the University Park Campus School, Massachusetts' highest performing urban high school, which prepares every student for college. These are long-standing pedagogical approaches, but what is unique is the power they have when all teachers in a school use them consistently, strategically and well:
- Collaborative group work allows students of all different skills to be supported and challenged by their peers. Working together helps students learn from each other.
- Writing to learn allows students, including ELLs, to develop ideas and use critical thinking. They can reflect on what they are learning so they can refine the learning in order to apply it at higher cognitive levels.
- Literacy groups, which are best compared to focused book clubs, help build comprehension and higher discourse among students across various texts in different disciplines.
- Questioning from students and teachers fosters purposeful conversations and stimulates intellect.
- Classroom discussion encourages students to develop thinking, listening and speaking skills.
- Scaffolding helps students connect prior knowledge they learned to challenging new concepts.
Meeting Workplace Needs
Employers in the 25,000-student Las Cruces Public Schools region, in southern New Mexico close to the Mexico border, include the White Sands Missile Range, NASA facilities, other military bases, as well as "a lot of interesting science and tech-related industries," says Tracey Bryan, president and CEO of The Bridge of Southern New Mexico, a nonprofit that is spearheading support of the ECHS model among a wide range of public and private sector interests.
Through the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce, employers expressed concerns that the region's mostly minority population, with high dropout rates in the schools, was making it difficult for them to find qualified employees and "inhibiting their ability to grow their businesses," Bryan says. It also was hurting efforts to attract new businesses, as employers wanted to know if there was "a ready labor pool." If half of the student body is dropping out, they don't want to hear about it, Bryan says.
Business and education authorities in the region agreed that an ECHS was the answer, and they started up a program. In the fall of 2010, the Las Cruces district partnered with Dona Ana Community College, which housed the Arrowhead Park Early College High School. But in August, the Arrowhead school moved to a new $18 million campus on property donated by New Mexico State University. Joined by a new freshman class of 125 students, the 112 students who completed the inaugural year are now sophomores. In two years, the building will open its doors to students in grades 9-12.
College by 2025
In his 2009 letter about his work at the foundation, Gates suggested a national goal "to ensure that 80 percent of our students graduate from high school fully ready to attend college by 2025." He acknowledged that the goal "will probably be more difficult to achieve than anything else the foundation works on, because change comes so slowly and is so hard to measure."
Vargas says that the ECHS model is one way to achieve that goal. "Until you can show me that we have removed the academic, social and financial barriers that low-income students face between high school and into college," he declares, "we need a pathway like this."
Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer to District Administration.