Juan E. Mejia and Nick González with South Texas College in McAllen said the 15 early college high schools their institution operates have helped to create a college-going culture in an area known for its poverty and lack of educational attainment.
Through the program, students have earned associate degrees by the time they graduate from high school, and have had the education they needed to continue on for bachelor’s degrees or to enter the workforce.
“We’re here to tell the story of what used to be and what can be,” Mejia, who is vice president for academic affairs at South Texas College, said.
The visit was coordinated through TJC President Dr. Mike Metke, who worked at South Texas College for many years. The meeting was held in partnership with Tyler Junior College, Tyler ISD and the Tyler Area Business-Education Council.
Metke said the community is very concerned about what happens with the schools here and what kind of labor force the community has.
Early college high school programs exist to allow the students least likely to attend college the opportunity to earn a high school diploma and 60 college credit hours, according to the Texas Education Agency website.
The programs provide dual credit at no cost to students. With dual-credit courses, students take college-level courses and earn college and high school credit for each course.
The purpose of the early college high school program is to increase college readiness and reduce the barriers to college access, according to the TEA website.
South Texas College operates different models of the program. One early college high school operates on the college campus. Others operate as stand-alone buildings at the school districts and others operate as a school within a school or entire school environment.
With traditional dual credit, students cannot start taking classes until their junior year, González said. However, with early college high school, students can start their freshman year.
Mejia said higher education and high job placement rates for graduates are key to lowering the unemployment rate in South Texas.
He said the program also has helped to significantly decrease the percentage of students who need to take developmental education courses in college.
Mejia said Tyler has a benefit in that there is so much support in the community already for this type of program and partnerships in place.
Two area school districts expressed interest in the program.
Tyler ISD Superintendent Gary Mooring said the district is looking into creating an early college high school program that could open as early as 2014.
Mooring said he has talked with the South Texas College representatives on several occasions, including when he previously worked at TJC. He said his goal is to pursue the program and educate the school board and community about it.
He said TISD staff members have researched the concept and three district employees recently visited early college high school campuses in South Texas and spoke with teachers, administrators and students there.
Money would have to be set aside for it and he said the district likely would hire someone to oversee the planning for the program. The district likely would house the program in a separate building, be it a TISD building or a TJC building.
“I think that what you see is this changes a whole culture or a climate,” Mooring said.
Chapel Hill ISD Assistant Superintendent Lisa McCreary said an early college high school program is the natural next step for the district.
The school started offering dual-credit courses six years ago and the program has grown since then. About 200 students, or 20 percent of the high school population, are taking dual-credit courses.
Starting next school year, Chapel Hill students will be able to graduate high school with up to 50 academic college credit hours. That doesn’t include the college-level career and technology courses they also can take.
She said district administrators already have visited Athens High School to see their early college high school program at work.
“We think it would be a tremendous opportunity,” Ms. McCreary said. “We see great benefits in the (program) and are eager to explore the grant that (would) allow this to be possible.”