Four years ago, when Alvah Samano entered the Early College High School Program as a ninth grader at Hidalgo High School, he probably could not yet envision sitting in a classroom at The University of Texas-Pan American this summer with already nearly 40 college credit hours as a high school student about to enter his senior year this fall.
Samano is part of the first cohort of students who will have participated all four years in an historic partnership established in 2006 between UTPA and the Hidalgo Independent School District to provide the opportunity for all incoming freshmen entering the high school to be able to earn up to two years (60 hours) of college credit tuition or an associate degree free while also earning a high school diploma.
Sixty students from that cohort have just completed their first summer session on the UTPA campus, taking classes from UTPA faculty members with other college students from throughout the Rio Grande Valley.
"We are getting a taste of the college experience and learning what we have to do to be successful in college," said Samano, who plans to enter pre-dentistry at UTPA after graduation.
For student Liza Zuniga, who has earned approximately 30 college credit hours, participating in the Hidalgo Early High School project has been challenging but has relieved her concerns of affording college coming from a single parent household with three younger siblings.
"What benefits me the most is that the school is paying for those college credit hours so when I graduate I won't have to worry about it and that's a lot of help," said Zuniga, who is interested in pursuing a degree in international business.
Designed to promote college matriculation and success by underrepresented minority and low-income students, the initiative has been 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 the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.
According to Dr. Ana Maria Rodriguez, UTPA senior vice provost for Undergraduate Studies, Academic Assessment and Retention, the Early College High School initiative not only saves dollars for families by compressing the number of years to attain a college degree but also assists students to be better prepared for success in college coursework and go on to highly skilled careers.
Rodriguez, who prepared the original four-year grant with support from The University of Texas System, said the initiative has required extensive collaboration between the faculties of both UTPA and the high school in order to align the curricula, standards and assessments with the expectations for college credit coursework.
"UTPA faculty has taught some of the courses at the high school and we have identified high school teachers who have met our credentials for adjunct faculty who are able to teach our courses to students at the high school," Rodriguez said. "This summer our computer information systems and communication faculty members went to Hidalgo every day to teach classes. Hidalgo also has a teacher in each of the classes so they work with each other to try and help students meet our expectations. Our teachers say for the most part these kids have met our standards."
During Summer Session I at the University UTPA lecturer Jose Salvidar taught a number of the program's participants in UNIV 1301 Learning Framework class, a course designed to assist all entering freshmen students with learning, motivation and academic success. He said the Hidalgo Early College High School students came in well-prepared to do their best in the class.
"They are really great students. They were just as prepared if not more prepared than any of the other students I've ever had," he said. "I think this opportunity will help them make an informed decision about college and give them an insight as to what to expect when they get there."
To enhance the opportunity for post secondary education for all of the students, the initiative includes not only exposure to core curriculum college coursework as freshmen and sophomores but as juniors and seniors the chance to select one of three pathways - four-year college study, technical study or certification study. The project also includes two other post-secondary education partners, South Texas College (STC) and Texas State Technical College (TSTC), where students can enter classes in skilled trades and health and human services, as well as take core curriculum courses.
The success of the program is seen in some of the recent statistics which have been recognized as award-winning by organizations such as the National School Board Association (2009 Magna Award) and the College Board (2009 Inspiration Award). The Hidalgo Early College High School has a 98.3 percent completion rate of students progressing from ninth to 12th grade, the highest completion rate of any school district in Hidalgo County. Approximately 192 seniors have earned up to 30 semester hours of college credit from UTPA during the four years. Some students have accumulated close to 60 semester hours through CLEP (College Level Examination Program) testing as well as college credit from STC and TSTC. Recently the school was ranked 11th among the top 100 "Best High Schools in America" (and first in the state of Texas) by U.S. News and World Report.
Edward Blaha, assistant superintendent for College Readiness at the Hidalgo Independent School District, said UTPA has been an outstanding partner in this project.
"We are so grateful of their support. This project has given our students the hope of completion of college," he said.
Rodriguez said by providing college-level experiences and supportive services early on it has lowered the likelihood of students dropping out at two key danger points of time -at the end of ninth grade and at age 16.
"The project has created a college going culture and mentality. The question now is not if you go to college but when you go to college," she said.
Additionally, Rodriguez said participation in the project has provided UTPA educators an opportunity for rethinking what is taught and how it is taught at the university level.
"Starting kids early on - this is the wave of the future. We need to see ourselves as partners with the pre-K-12 entities. We have to all be in this together," she said.
For more information on UTPA's participation in the Hidalgo Early College High School project, contact the UTPA Office of Undergraduate Studies at 956/316-7919.