Early College high schools -- a nationwide model to help low-income and minority students become college ready -- are giving underserved students an opportunity to better their lives and the lives of their families and communities.
In Trinidad Garza Early College High School's Dallas, Texas zip code, 59% of the population have not graduated from high school, and only 10% have a college degree. Yet the school has a 100% graduation rate, and their students have 100% mastery on every high-stakes state assessment test in every subject. Not only is Trinidad Garza creating college-ready students, but almost 50% of their students graduated with an Associate’s degree last year.
Coming from Texas Women's University, Graciella Garcia joined Trinidad Garza as a math teacher in 2013. She was part of the high school’s first graduating class in 2010. During her first year as a teacher, she told us, "When I graduated with my Associate's degree I was completely prepared for college. Now, I’m a teacher at 21 years old. It has only been three years since I graduated. A lot of my friends are still in community college or about to start university, and I see how much this program has put me ahead."
How It's Done
Early College Model Structure
There are six key elements to an Early College high school:
- College credit: Students have the opportunity to earn up to two years of transferrable college credit -- an Associate's degree -- at no cost.
- Power of place: Early College schools are situated on or near college campuses, giving students the opportunity to take college courses while integrating into the college culture and experience.
- Aligned curricula: For dual-credit courses, high school and college courses are aligned.
- College partnership: The college partnership is a key element that makes aligned curricula and power of place possible.
- Aligned instruction: To create college-ready students and lay the foundation for rigor, Early College high schools use the Common Instructional Framework strategies schoolwide: scaffolding, writing to learn, questioning, classroom talk, collaborative group work, and literacy groups.
- Personalization and student supports: Strong student-staff relationships at Early College high schools are emphasized. When Trinidad Garza’s staff looks at data, they know the names of the students behind the percentage. They assess the needs of every student and provide the individualized attention that includes academic counseling, study halls, and social-emotional supports.
Partner With a College
Trinidad Garza’s high school facility is located on the Mountain View Community College campus. This partnership embeds and embraces students in a real-life college culture.
"You get to take a look at what actual college classes are like before even getting to the actual college stage," says Kenya, a high school junior. “By the time we graduate here as seniors, we have a college-life mindset.”
Trinidad Garza also partners with Educate Texas, an initiative that supports Texas educators to start or adopt an Early College high school model, and Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that does the same nationwide. Educate Texas, which partnered Trinidad Garza with Mountain View, helps with the complete design and implementation process, including funding, professional development, and partnership development with a college. Jobs for the Future lists Early College schools across the country, their partnered colleges, and organizations like Educate Texas that support them in adopting the model. Find examples of Early College schools and districts in your state.
Adopt This: "We believe so much in the possibilities for replication of Early College concepts -- like dual-credit courses," explains Dr. Janice Lombardi, Trinidad Garza's principal. “You can offer the dual-credit classes without being on a campus. If you hire qualified, credentialed content experts who could teach a college class, that would be the way to go. It would be very similar to the way AP is done.”
Be Intentional and Innovative With Your Space
If you locate a high school on a college campus, you need to think outside of the box about how you use space. When Trinidad Garza first became a part of Mountain View, they had seven or eight rooms grouped near each other, but it wasn't enough. "There was no real designation. There were college classes going on right next to the high school," recalls Felix Zamora, the president of Mountain View Community College, and faculty were concerned with high school students being thrust into a college environment without having learned college readiness skills and without their own space.
"There was a lot of physical rearrangement that had to be done,” says Zamora. “Now that whole hallway is Trinidad Garza, everybody acknowledges it, and there's a big sign. And Dr. Lombardi's got that fish bowl office there, and we celebrate it."
Know That Your Students Are Assets to the College Community
Not only do Trinidad Garza students share space with a college, they also share the college experience. They can join the student government, participate in associations and plays, and be eligible for the Honor Societies and clubs. "A high school student is the vice president of Phi Theta Kappa, and many of our students are in the Spanish Honors Society," says Dr. Lombardi.
In the beginning, college faculty worried about incoming high school students entering their campus unprepared academically, socially, or emotionally -- and at first, not every student was prepared. "The college faculty might have felt insulted or disrespected at first, but in the evolution of the partnership, we have become a critical support to them," reflects Lombardi. “When the astronomy club has a stargazing party in the evening, it's mostly the high school students from those college classes who attend. When they have the Spanish Honors Society, the professors now come to me and ask, 'Will your students be participating?' They know that our students support their endeavors.”
"In the beginning it was difficult for me because I didn’t socialize that much," admits Georgette, a Trinidad Garza senior, "but now, even though I’m 18, I can tell you that I have a lot of wisdom and experience, and sometimes I even motivate these students that are 27, 29 to do their homework, or help them with it."
Be Flexible With Scheduling
When partnering with a college, a flexible master schedule is important, especially if you're using the same facilities, advises Lombardi. "We allow most of our students to take their college classes in the morning now,” she adds, “and we teach the high school classes in the afternoon."
By aligning schedules, students can fully integrate into the college culture, says Zamora. "High school students have always been able to take college courses, but they'd have to come in at night or late in the afternoon. It wasn't homogenized with the school, and so that was a major change."
By aligning schedules, you'll also maximize resources. "It meant that we weren't fighting for the same rooms, and there were no disagreements about the use of resources," explains Lombardi. “For example, the air conditioning was still going to be used, and both of us could use it at the same time.”
Structure Communication With College Staff
Communication is essential for success when you're working so closely with a college. When Lombardi first came on board as Trinidad Garza's principal, she spoke with each dean at Mountain View because each had an issue that he or she wanted addressed. "You have to be able to hear each other out, listen to each other, and see what the problems are,” states Lombardi. “You gather that information, listen to what they have to say, and you try to mitigate against that by developing a system."
"The communication between us is what keeps us together,” agrees Zamora. “We have a routine for Dr. Lombardi to visit with my staff, and I meet with Dr. Lombardi regularly. It has been such a great experience that we wind up going to some conferences and events together. They really are part of the fabric now."
Lombardi meets with:
- Mountain View staff at their quarterly cabinet meetings with a report and wish list
- President Zamora at a monthly meeting
- Zamora and the Mountain View staff annually to assess their agreement
Listen to the Needs of College Staff When Collaborating
"Collaboration can never be underestimated," emphasizes Lombardi.
A key element to successful collaboration is respecting your colleagues’ expertise. At first, when the college instructors and Trinidad Garza teachers met to align their curriculum, the college faculty thought that the high school faculty lacked strong content knowledge, and they were frustrated that this partnership would lower their standards.
Most of Trinidad Garza’s first teachers had taught middle school. "Since I have been here, I have hired people that are lifelong learners working on Master's degrees and doctorates,” says Lombardi. “I have two attorneys. One teaches government; he is also capable of teaching at college. The person who teaches physics is an astrophysicist, and then he became a teacher. Those are the ones that earn the respect of their college counterparts. Now they consider us as co-equals in content knowledge."
Offer College Credit
Trinidad Garza provides students with the opportunity to earn up to 60 college credits (an Associate's degree) at no cost by offering dual-credit courses, which are aligned with both college and high school curriculum. This means that a student can take one class and get credit for both high school and college.
Kenya is thrilled by this. "You come here, and it's basically a scholarship -- you receive a two-year scholarship! By the end of the semester, I should have 33 credits. I plan on taking summer classes, so by senior year I should have maybe three to four classes, and I would graduate with my Associate's degree. That's pretty great!" she laughs.
Not every student will leave Trinidad Garza with an Associate's degree. Students enter the high school at different levels of academic readiness, and the school scaffolds the college course process, supporting each student to stretch and redefine his or her academic and social-emotional capabilities, whatever level that may be.
Scaffold College Courses
Trinidad Garza students have four types of classes available:
- High school classes
- Dual-credit, “easier” college classes that students can take without passing the college entry exam (such as physical education, art, and music), helping them acclimate to the college atmosphere
- Dual-credit, higher-level college classes that require students to pass an entry exam
- College classes that are not dual-credit, but available to high school students
In ninth grade, Trinidad Garza students take the TSI (Texas Success Initiative) Assessment, an exam that determines what level of college courses are appropriate for them. They need to pass this exam before they can begin taking higher-level, dual-credit college classes.
Students who don't pass the TSI exam can take a reading course that prepares them to pass it. "They can take those classes all the way up until they pass that test,” says Lombardi. “About 98% of our seniors pass that college entry exam at some point. Some may pass it in ninth grade. Some may pass it after tenth grade. We want them all to pass as soon as they can, but we don't care when they pass it. We care about taking each student -- and some of them are quite low -- and growing them into being phenomenal college-ready students."
Prior to passing that exam, students still take up to 12 credits of college courses, including art, physical education, and music. "It's intimidating taking our first college class," reflects Kenya. "You don't know anyone. Most of the people are old compared to you. Each professor teaches differently. All the work is on you. They're preparing us to be responsible."
"The majority of our students are first-generation college goers," says Marcario Hernandez, Trinidad Garza's assistant principal. “It's powerful what's happening here. As soon as they come in their freshman year, they're already getting that college access.”
"I am the first generation in my family that would be graduating from college," offers Kenya. "My dad dropped out in fourth grade, and my mom got her GED. I feel like I need to do it for my own good, and because I want to set an example for my siblings."
Align Your Curriculum to Offer Dual-Credit Courses
Aligning high school and college curriculum is a partnership between you and your district, college, and state. "The alignment of the curriculum is the foundation of Early College high schools," explains Zamora.
The State of Texas, the Dallas Independent School District's curriculum system directors, and Mountain View Community College's curriculum committees spent a year aligning high school and college curriculum, discussing where student learning outcomes overlapped. Now, the Trinidad Garza teachers and Mountain View professors review the curriculum annually.
"Putting people in the room together and allowing them to express their needs, it creates these aha moments with aligning our curriculum that happen almost instantly," says Lombardi.
Not only does aligning curriculum help with developing dual-credit courses, it also creates a better understanding of what high school students need to learn to become college ready. In one of their meetings, Mountain View professors shared that grammar was an integral piece in their first-year English language arts curriculum. However, Trinidad Garza’s main focus was global, holistic writing instead of grammar. "Right there was an aha moment,” recalls Lombardi. “We realized that if we started teaching more grammar, then our kids would be college-ready when taking the TSI exam."
Adopt a Schoolwide Common Instructional Framework
In every class, both core and elective curriculum, Trinidad Garza uses the six strategies from the Common Instructional Framework -- collaborative group work, literacy groups, scaffolding, writing to learn, questioning, and classroom talk -- to align their instruction, create a rigorous environment, and foster students who take ownership of their learning.
Created by Jobs for the Future, "this framework was designed specifically for Early College high schools as a way to quickly raise the students' proficiency and college readiness," explains Donna Engelhart, a Trinidad Garza instructional coach.
All of the high school teachers use these strategies as the framework for their instruction. "It helps with planning because you know you're going to use a combination of these strategies," says Jeannie Adams, a Trinidad Garza world history teacher. “That's your basis. What you're going to teach and how you're going to weave those strategies through your teaching, that's how you set your lesson up. It acts as a guide.”
There are also benefits for students. The Common Instructional Framework gives them recurrent tools, expectations, and a common language across all classes. Since these strategies are used in every class, students become familiar with the expectations and learn skills like note taking, critical thinking, and self-scaffolding.
Offer Personalized Student Supports
Trinidad Garza serves a wide range of students with varying needs and backgrounds. "An Early College by definition serves underserved students -- first-time college goers,” states Lombardi. “And so as a consequence, they don't have experience in lots of the information to go to college -- like the study skills and the academic background. What we do at our school is we accept the challenge of scaffolding students from their known to the unknown. We do that through a variety of classes, coursework, and supports."
"As an incoming freshman, I was not confident at all,” recalls Georgette. “This school provided me with tutoring and moral support. I always second guessed myself, and my teachers always supported me. They said that I was very bright, and that I was going to blossom. They always told me that I would progress with time, and that really helped me."
The staff at Trinidad Garza helps every student meet the high expectations they set: content mastery, a high school diploma, and college credits. They support students in meeting these high expectations through a variety of ways, including study halls, counseling support, a college readiness course, and the intervention team.
Daily Study Halls
Trinidad Garza embeds a daily study hall into the master schedule, says Lombardi, "because we know that having a space and resources to do homework may not be available to them given their home circumstances. They may not have a place to study or have a computer."
Trinidad Garza offers academic and social-emotional counseling support in two ways: by appointment and by regularly scheduled meetings during study hall. Counselors come into study hall with guidance lessons for the class, and they pull students out of study hall to work with them in small groups or one-on-one to help with class scheduling, goal setting, and their identified needs.
"One of the things that we see with this scaffolded instruction is that students become anxious,” observes Lombardi. “They're fearful, and they don't want to take a risk and try harder-level classes." Counselors support their students by building their self-belief through creating consistent, short-term, attainable goals, "a major focus," according to Lombardi. Counselors support students in achieving their goals by helping them identify their strengths and desired areas of growth in order to create a plan.
Counselors also identify students that need extra support and refer them to the intervention team.
The most integral part to meeting each student’s personal needs is Trinidad Garza’s intervention team. This team -- consisting of teachers, counselors, administrators, a nurse, an instructional coach, and the campus testing coordinator -- meets weekly to discuss students’ social, behavioral, and academic needs. Those needs fall into four categories:
- Attendance: Which students didn't show up for class or showed up late this week?
- Health: How are health issues impacting students, and how can we support them?
- Behavior: What issues are students having behaviorally, and how can we address the issue and help them?
- Academics: For students who are failing and not motivated, how can we help them succeed?
"The intervention team is critical because we immediately intervene,” says Lombardi. “Part of the whole process here is problem articulation and then problem solution. We're not fearful of having a problem solution that we have to rework and do again until it's solved. So our focus in the Garza Intervention Team is that we never let students go. We're not going to throw our hands in the air and just not deal with this."
College Readiness Course
In senior year, every student takes a college prep course to help with the college application process: college essays to FASFA to scholarships. "Every student also has access to their college advisor. We encourage students to meet individually with their advisor when they have specific questions, such as transferability of credits to a particular university," elaborates Jazmin Greenwood, Trinidad Garza's lead counselor.
Adopt This: At Chicago's Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, Englewood Campus, 100% of the students are accepted into college, and 95% enroll in college. Explore their college prep course, and learn how they create a college culture without being located on a college campus.
Empower Your Students to Impact Their Communities
By instilling a college mindset in your students, you're creating new opportunities not only in their lives but also in the lives of their families and communities.
Georgette, a senior at Trinidad Garza, wants to give back to her community. "I will be graduating with an Associate’s in Science,” she says. “After graduation, I plan to attend Baylor University as a Biology pre-med student and then go on to UT Southwestern Medical School. This is an opportunity for me to be a role model and create a legacy in my family as a first-generation college student. Having four younger brothers that are aspiring to pursue a higher education, I want them to see that dreams do come true if you pursue with your heart and with passion. Since I was young, I knew that this is what I wanted to do, to give my parents a better life, and to also help my community as a medical professional."