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Professional Opinion

Early-college high schools expands opportunity for the underserved

Austin high school’s turnaround prove the program works
Sharie Akinmulero is an English teacher in San Antonio, Texas.
Sharie Akinmulero is an English teacher in San Antonio, Texas.

As school districts around the country experiment with various reforms aimed to increase graduation rates and prepare student for college, one such initiative already has established a proven track record of success.

The Early College High School (ECHS) model was launched in 2002 with grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and numerous other organizations throughout the nation. It provides underserved and at-risk students a chance to pursue an associate’s degree or earn up to 60 college credits while completing their high school diploma—at no additional cost.

Texas will soon have more than 150 ECHS campuses—a staggering number that makes the state a national leader in the early-college high school movement. Why Texas? Partly because the state has a unique student population. Hispanic students now make up the majority of public school enrollments statewide, at nearly 51 percent.

Model of success

Some educators and pundits have raised a number of legitimate concerns about early-college high schools.

They wonder, for example, whether some freshmen may be too young to enter such a rigorous program. However, as with most initiatives, once there is support from all sectors within the community, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

For example, the program helped Reagan Early College High School in Austin transform from a troubled school to a model of success.

In fact, in 2008 Austin ISD had planned to shut the school down because of poor attendance and a dismal 48 percent graduation rate.

But the school revamped its structure, increasing rigor and providing additional social support for students. In 2014, more than 80 percent of students at the early-college high school graduated.

Additionally, a study by the American Institute of Research shows that 81 percent of the school’s ECHS students enrolled in college, compared with 72 percent of students from non-ECHS schools.

Furthermore, 25 percent of the ECHS students earned a college degree (typically an associate’s degree), compared with 5 percent of non-ECHS students. And the study’s authors noted, “the benefit of attending an early-college high school was even greater for female students, racial/ethnic minorities, and low income students.”

It is not just these impressive statistics that make the national early-college initiative so appealing to families. The program is free to students, and with an estimated 75,000 enrolled, that amounts to approximately $450 million saved since its inception. The students who attend early-college high schools, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds, are more likely to attend college and graduate with a degree.

Overcoming hurdles

Despite these successes, some wonder why more schools have not bought into the concept. Education researcher Michael Webb believes that, as with so many other initiatives, cost is the prime factor, especially with dwindling budgets and resources.

Webb estimates that it costs, on average, 4.5 percent to 12 percent more for a school to implement an early-college high school program.

But the rewards—from the perspective of the students who benefit from this initiative—are monumental. As one former early-college student said: “I like a good challenge, so the fact that I could go to classes and earn two credits for the price of one was exciting to me.”

Such a comment should indicate that the benefits of the early-college initiative are worth pursuing.

Sharie Akinmulero is an English teacher in San Antonio, Texas.