UTPA joins Hidalgo ISD in innovative Early College High School Project
Posted: 02/28/2006
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The University of Texas-Pan American and the Hidalgo Independent School District have joined in a partnership announced Feb. 15 to establish two new four-year high schools called UTPA/HISD Early College High Schools (ECHS) by fall 2006.

This pilot project - the first in the state - will provide the opportunity for all incoming freshmen entering Hidalgo High School to achieve up to two years (60 hours) of college credit tuition free while earning a high school diploma. This initiative to promote college matriculation and success by underrepresented minority and low-income students will be funded by a $1.4 million four-year grant from the Texas High School Project through the Communities Foundation of Texas. The Texas High School Project has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and recently supplemented by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

Hidalgo ISD Superintendent Dr. Daniel King (left) is pictured Feb. 15 signing a cooperative agreement with UTPA President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas (right) to implement the Early College High Schools project at Hidalgo High School fall 2006.
Before a crowd that included a group of eighth graders and their parents who will be the first to experience the Early College High School, Hidalgo High School Principal Ed Blaha declared it a historic day.

"This marks a historic day for our school because today we will begin creating unlimited opportunities and possibilities for every single student," he said.

Hidalgo Superintendent Dr. Daniel King explained when they were approached by UTPA President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas and told about the project's possibility, it reinforced a goal that Hidalgo had been pursuing for a number of years - to connect every student to college before they left high school. King said instead of one grant, they asked for two so all incoming students into the high school could be included.

"This is the first attempt in the nation to convert an entire high school into an Early College High School and to connect every single student to postsecondary education before they leave us. It will be a challenge - it is not going to be easy but failure is not an option. Together we will succeed for these students," he said.

Its smaller size, exemplary ratings over the years and use of innovative programs to encourage student success were among the reasons Hidalgo High School was chosen for the project said Dr. Ana Maria Rodriguez, associate vice president for Undergraduate Studies, who is helping to implement the project along with The University of Texas System.

"The school board approved this unanimously. We didn't have to do a lot of convincing - they were already on that wavelength," she said.

Rodriguez explained that initially the two Early College High Schools will function as two autonomous wings within the current high school each with a yet to be determined career path. Each year another cohort of incoming freshmen will be added until the entire student population is composed of Early College High School students. The schools will be set up with a required 48-hour core curriculum; then students can go into different college majors or choose to go to South Texas College or elsewhere for an associate degree.

Blaha said the goal of his school and its teachers will be to create a culture and atmosphere where students have a vision with the focus to succeed. He said the teachers have been encouraged to go back for their master's degrees and his teachers are excited about the future.

Dr. Daniel King, Hidalgo ISD superintendent (left) and Ed Cancino, Hidalgo ISD assistant superintendent (right) stand aside some of the eighth grade students who will enter the Early College High Schools being established fall 2006 within Hidalgo High School. The students will have the opportunity to earn up to 60 hours of college credit tuition free while earning their high school degree in the Early College High School, one of the unique grant opportunities within the Texas High School Project through the Communities Foundation of Texas.
After praising the "focused leadership" of the Hidalgo ISD and the support of the school by the parents and community, Cárdenas talked directly to the students about the responsibility they were taking on.

"What you do and how you do it will send a message that says Mexican-American students who don't have all the money in the world have the brain power, discipline and the courage that it will take to do just as well as anyone else," she said. "Your job is to keep faith with the faith that your community, your families, your school district and your university have in you. I have no doubt that you will not let us down."

Wearing brand new UTPA T-shirts, the students who will enter the Early College High Schools in the fall seemed ready for the challenge.

"I am very excited and happy that I was chosen. I think this is going to work out. I'm going to work hard to make my dreams come true," said Isamar Saucedo, an eighth grade student from Ida Diaz Jr. High who wants to be a pharmacist, paramedic or a doctor.

As a single parent raising a child, Elizabeth Sarabia said she gives thanks to all the people who provided this opportunity for her son Jesus Guerrero, who will also enter the program in the fall.

"I tell my son to keep in mind that if he wants to be somebody he needs to go to college," she said.

The Texas High School Project is a public-private initiative managed by the Communities Foundation of Texas aimed at boosting graduation rates and increasing the number of Texas high school students prepared for postsecondary success.

The Communities Foundation of Texas (CFT), one of the largest community foundations in the country, both in terms of total assets and grant dollars awarded, has for 50 years advanced philanthropy in Texas. Its sole mission is to fulfill the philanthropic intentions of its donors to meet the educational, medical, civic, artistic and cultural, and social services needs of the community. CFT's volunteer board of directors is deeply rooted and broadly involved in the community. More than $500 million in charitable grants have been awarded since 1953.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is building upon the unprecedented opportunities of the 21st century to improve equity in global health and learning. Led by Bill Gates' father, William H. Gates Sr., and Patty Stonesifer, the Seattle-based foundation has an endowment of approximately $25 billion.