Pre-college programs offer students an opportunity to dip their toes into college-level work in a scaffolded way. By taking courses for college credit while also working toward their high school diplomas, students in these programs have opportunities to expand their skill sets, explore passions that might lead to their future majors, and accrue transfer credits that shorten the time they spend in college working toward a bachelor’s degree, all while gaining the social and emotional and executive functioning skills required for college-level work.
Leading a pre-college program presents opportunities as well as challenges for a school leader. As this model is founded on collaboration and productive partnership between high school teachers, college professors, and their schools, there are many moving pieces to make such programs work.
To better understand these behind-the-scenes elements, I spoke with Sonia Flores, principal of the Dr. TJ Owens Gilroy Early College Academy, a National Blue Ribbon School in California enrolling 300 students. Flores was the 2021 recipient of a Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding Leadership from the U.S. Department of Education. Her commitment to advancing social and emotional learning (SEL) in college preparation programming lends insights that are applicable to schools across the country.
BRITTANY COLLINS: Can you tell me a little about your school and your pre-college program?
SONIA FLORES: Early college high schools allow students to earn their high school diploma at the same time as taking college coursework. For our program, roughly 80 of our seniors graduate with their associate’s degree from the college, which is incredible, and it’s because we’ve established that partnership with the college to figure out the best pathways for our students. Essentially, it’s dual enrollment.
Our high school campus is on the college campus, so the students may have first period with us, and then, second period, go to the college. It’s nice to be able to have that physical location on-site. The beauty of the program, too, is that it is a small school, and we serve roughly 300 students. We make sure that nobody falls between the cracks and that they have their individual plan.
Back in the 2000s, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided start-up funding for a lot of early college models. And so that’s when you saw a lot more of these early college high schools, especially in California. There’s a lot of research that shows the success of these programs; it’s a great pathway to ensure that students make it to and through college, especially students who are first-generation college students, who might come from a low-income background, who are traditionally underrepresented in a four-year university setting.
COLLINS: How much of a boost for college does your program provide?
FLORES: In fulfilling a lot of their general requirements in high school, students get to their four-year university and have two, maybe three years left to complete their bachelor’s. As a child of immigrant parents and a principal now serving a large population of students who are children of immigrants, I appreciate the opportunities this type of programming provides.
We have an AVID-type program that allows students to explore different careers, and that’s especially important for early college students, because some of them are already working toward fulfilling the requirements of a major. Early on, students might be taking art, kinesiology, and languages to fulfill their high school diploma requirements. But as they move through the program, they might start to take more specific, nuanced college classes. It really opens the students’ eyes to something that they may not have even considered otherwise.
COLLINS: So there are a lot of factors to take into account in managing your school and making sure the program works well for your students and the college.
FLORES: In California, community colleges have something called guided pathways. Our students are able to look at how their interests might align to a certain field. We’re committed to ensuring that our students are ready for some of those higher-level classes. In the earlier years, we did not offer chemistry at the high school level. Rather, ninth graders took environmental science, and then 10th graders took biology, and then in 11th and 12th grade, the students had to take at least one college science class. I saw that we had an opportunity to fortify that STEM pathway for our students, so that they could knock out a lot of their undergraduate prerequisites and their general education requirements for the sciences early on.
I was looking at the overall structure of our program, and I thought ninth graders should be taking biology, 10th graders taking chemistry. Then, in the 11th grade, they can take physics at the college level. That chemistry class will also give them the background and solid foundation that they need to take a higher-level chemistry class or a higher-level biology class that will therefore streamline them to getting more of a natural science degree or physical science degree if they want to pursue a career in medicine.
Running the program involves looking at some of those pieces structurally and then having the conversation with our partner college and saying we want more students to go into these classes—is there that opportunity? And looking at all the interests of our students, their families, and of course what the college offers to create, organizationally, those pathways.
COLLINS: I know that social and emotional learning is also a focus of your work. What does that look like in this pre-college context?
FLORES: We try to stay in tune with our students’ needs and their stress levels throughout the school year through our main content areas, but having a designated class for students where they can express themselves and do some of that self-exploration, look at time management—that is really crucial for our students’ success and teaches them how to plan for a four-year university experience.
Because of the stress levels that our kids have, because they put a lot of pressure on themselves to be successful—that’s why they’re here—they need support, and we try to provide that support through this class.
Part of the initiative is having Mindful Mondays. We brought in a community-based organization to train our staff on mindfulness practices, and then we worked on converting some of those practices into the classroom. Some teachers were doing it in their content areas, but we formalized it. We changed our bell schedule so that all kids had [the SEL] class the same period in their school day, and that allows us the flexibility to do fun school community-building things, connect students with peer mentors, have peer tutors, and then infuse some of those character-building activities and community circles within the classroom.
COLLINS: Does that SEL focus connect to your overall leadership philosophy?
FLORES: I have put students first always. I strive to ensure that we are providing the best education for our students, and the best education isn’t necessarily making sure that only the content is always the best—it’s also looking at the whole student and their whole-person development, and doing our best to support them along their academic journey, because parents have trusted us to guide their students to reach their full potential.
COLLINS: It sounds like you have a solid plan for supporting students. How do you approach mentoring your staff?
FLORES: As school leaders, we have a big role in supporting those we work with. The people that we have in our community are our greatest assets. Being there for each other, and supporting each other along our journey, is incredibly important. I try to replicate the mentorship I received—to be there for my teachers, to listen to them, to help them through our collaborative work together, talking about, “What are your goals? What do you want to do? What have you thought about for your future?” and then supporting them in their capacities, not only in the classroom, but whether they’re pursuing an advanced degree in education, for example, or their administrative credential.
I’ve been honored to work with some of our alumni, my former students who completed their bachelor’s degree, and they’re moving toward their master’s. Some of them have come to me and said, “What do I do?” And I say, “Have you considered teaching?” Or if they’ve already been teaching for a few years, I say, “Have you considered school leadership?”
Building that community and that network with all the people that come through is special. As school leaders, it’s our job to ensure that we’re putting the right person in the right position and giving them the tools that they need to succeed.