Early College Designs

An increasingly popular college-readiness strategy for school districts to reach more traditionally underserved students by JOEL H. VARGAS AND MARC S. MILLER

In fall 2002, the first three early college high schools opened their doors. Today, more than 230 schools based on early college designs serve 50,000 students in 28 states and the District of Columbia. These innovative schools are showing results.

In 2009, about 3,000 students graduated from the 64 early college schools that had been open for four or more years. Of these high school graduates, 44 percent earned at least a year of transferable college credit; 25 percent earned two full years of college credit or an associate degree; and the students earned an average of 20 to 30 college credits by the end of senior year.

Joel Vargas and Marc MillerJoel Vargas (right), vice president of the High School Through College with Marc Miller, both of Jobs for the Future in Boston.

A radical concept when introduced a decade ago in both New York and California, early college high schools have passed their first steps with confidence. The challenge today — and the excitement of those involved — centers on learning from this successful innovation and bringing the early college design to many more young people. With assistance from Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that leads the national Early College High School Initiative, expansion and innovation are taking place in two primary ways: 

•  The creation of early college districts covering all students. In the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District in south Texas, all students will attend schools based on early college designs and earn college credits before graduating from high school.

•  The use of early college designs as a statewide strategy for secondary education. North Carolina leads the nation with 71 early colleges across the state. Other states making new investments include Massachusetts and Kentucky.

Scaling Up
The early college design is a vehicle for providing traditionally underserved students with an opportunity to prepare for college, in part by allowing them to simultaneously earn a substantial number of college credits tuition-free along with a high school diploma. Students spend fewer years and less money achieving a college degree because they are more prepared for college and have a head start.

The Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District has taken this cutting-edge idea and embarked on a plan to extend it. By embedding a college and career culture in everyday activities, beginning with elementary school but especially in middle school and high school, the district is motivating all students to believe they can and will go on to postsecondary education.

The goal is for every student to meet college- and career-ready standards and earn at least 12 college credits. Through partnerships with South Texas College and the University of Texas-Pan American, high school students are pushed to complete as many college-level courses as possible toward a future degree. In both middle school and high school, college-ready instruction and ever-present support, such as tutoring, help students when they need extra time and encouragement in tough subjects.

The 32,000-student district on the Texas-Mexico border serves a high-need student population (89 percent low income, 42 percent limited English proficient, 99 percent Hispanic). In 2008, it partnered with the Texas High School Project to open the Pharr-San-Juan-Alamo T-STEM Early College High School. Using a high-performing school that focuses on math and sciences as a learning lab, the school district is extending the early college design to all of its schools, starting with a comprehensive high school that opened in fall 2010. Three new middle schools also are based on early college designs.

The district will expand the design to its other three comprehensive high schools and five middle schools. Implementation is starting with grades 6 and 9 and building up from there. To accelerate progress, the district is building awareness of the “college for all” message.

As part of this whole-district effort, the new College, Career and Technology Academy helps youth who had dropped out to return for their high school diploma and to take college courses. Highlighted as a model for the state, the school’s innovative approach increased the number of graduates by more than 50 percent in two years.

A Common Framework
Three key strategies underlie the college-ready, college-connected, whole-district approach taken by the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District. The first is to strengthen the academic program so all students meet college- and career-ready standards and prepare for postsecondary success.

Hidalgo FeatureStudents at Hidalgo Elementary School in Hidalgo, Texas, where the district runs an early college high school.

The district’s approach begins with all schools adopting the early college mission and design and making academic, cultural and structural changes to enable implementation. Each school is developing a coherent academic program through a common instructional framework. The framework is composed of six strategies that accelerate learning and require students to take ownership of the learning process:

•  COLLABORATIVE GROUP WORK creates an engaging classroom culture in which students with diverse skill levels are supported and challenged by their peers. 

•  WRITING TO LEARN helps students, including English language learners, develop their ideas, critical thinking and fluency of expression in all subjects. 

•  GROUPS help build comprehension, fluency and higher-level discourse across a variety of texts in different disciplines.

•  QUESTIONING challenges students and teachers to use deep, probing questions to foster purposeful conversations and stimulate intellectual inquiry. 

•  CLASSROOM TALK encourages all students to develop their thinking, listening and speaking skills, and promotes active learning. 

•  SCAFFOLDING encompasses a broad range of techniques that help students connect prior knowledge to challenging new concepts.

The framework was developed by Jobs for the Future and the University Park Campus School in Worcester, Mass., a nationally recognized high school in an economically disadvantaged urban area. Many early college schools throughout the country have implemented the framework.

Through intensive, ongoing coaching, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo district has gone a long way toward instituting the common instructional framework. The second key strategy in its college-ready, college-connected, whole-district approach is this: Increase college course completion and enhance career pathways to prepare students for postsecondary success.

The district is aligning all programs and resources to the goal that all students will graduate high school ready for college by having completed some college work. Even students who go directly to work after high school obtain technical skills in college courses that prepare them for better-paying careers and enable them to continue their education. The career pathways make school relevant and align it to postsecondary expectations. To ensure this, the district is auditing all career pathways to determine their alignment to both high-paying jobs in the Rio Grande Valley and to college demands.

To help students succeed after graduation, the district is implementing a third key strategy: Improve the transitions to postsecondary education by deepening partnerships with colleges, increasing college-campus-based counseling and providing additional support for graduates.

The school district is working with colleges to support students in selecting high-interest career pathways, helping them make a more confident and informed transition to college. High school guidance counselors help students match their career interests with postsecondary programs.

The district employs three transition counselors, two based at South Texas College and the University of Texas, Pan American, because they attract the biggest share of graduates. The third counselor works solely with young people who had nearly dropped out of high school before the district re-engaged them, facilitating their transition into college and work.

Reform Strategy
The groundwork for expanding the early college design within districts was laid by organizations that initially implemented stand-alone early college schools. The Texas High School Project, a public/private partnership that organizes school development and innovation, has sparked growth. Texas now has 44 early college high schools, 51 STEM schools (including five early college schools focusing on science, technology, engineering and math) and emerging whole-district, early college designs.

The most sizable statewide, early-college expansion is taking place in North Carolina, which has 71 schools, each located on the campus of a partnering college. The North Carolina New Schools Project, like the Texas High School Project, is a state-level intermediary organization that has proven to be an effective vehicle for spreading innovative school designs.

A unique challenge of statewide expansion efforts is to promote, across many districts, consistently high-quality implementation and instructional practice. To address this, the North Carolina New Schools Project provides technical assistance and professional development to ensure fidelity to non-negotiable design principles. One principle is purposeful design, as exemplified by the early college design. The others are readiness for college, powerful teaching and learning, personalization and redefined professionalism.

•  READINESS FOR COLLEGE: All innovations supported by the New Schools Project must be based on a pervasive and transparent understanding that the school exists for the purpose of preparing all students for college and work. One aspect of implementing this principle is to avoid tracking students: Academic history should not determine a student’s future trajectory.

Vance County Early College High School in Henderson, N.C., initially tried to differentiate its English instruction by tracking students into classes by entering skill level. However, students in the lower-level class were not getting the benefits of learning with higher-performing students, so the school eliminated the differentiated assignments. It now places all students in honors classes, an approach the school has found effective in moving students with low skills to college-level work.

About half of the first entering class at Vance scored at the lowest levels on state achievement tests, but by the end of the 10th grade, all but three students had passed the placement test to enter credit-bearing college courses.

•  POWERFUL TEACHING AND LEARNING: New Schools Project schools are characterized by adherence to common standards for high-quality instructional practice. Like Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, all of North Carolina’s early colleges use the common instructional framework, which enables students of diverse skill levels to access challenging material and creates a culture of collaborative learning.

This year’s 9th-grade English students at Davidson County Early College High School in Lexington, N.C., told the teacher they had never before been assigned to read a full novel on their own. When it was time to read Of Mice and Men, the teacher assigned students to literacy groups as a strategy to facilitate the analysis of complex texts. She also assigned them individual roles (e.g., “question corrector,” “vocabulary master,” “prober” and “summarizer”) to hold each student partially accountable for the learning of the group. By late September, when the class was expected to have read only through chapter 5, half of the students had finished the book.

•  PERSONALIZATION: Knowing students well is an essential condition of helping them achieve academically. One aspect of personalization involves caring relationships between students and staff that provide the basis for high academic expectations. In the early college design, staff members are close to students, familiar with each student’s academic strengths and weaknesses, and they regularly push students to work harder and aim higher.

Anson County Early College in Polkton, N.C., organizes every student into CARE (Children Are Really Exceptional) groups of about eight students who meet with a teacher once a month inside or outside of school. Teachers have hosted students at their homes, gone bowling or to the movies, attended student sporting events or led other recreational activities to develop rapport. 

•  REDEFINED PROFESSIONALISM: Staff members take responsibility for the success of every student, hold themselves accountable to their colleagues, and are reflective about their roles. To take professionalism to the next level, many of North Carolina’s early college teachers develop collaborative relationships with college instructors within their discipline.

Buncombe County Early College in Asheville, N.C., structures the school week so teachers have frequent opportunities to collaborate with college instructors and attend the college courses their younger students are taking. The school gradually lessens the intensity of this support over the years as upper-class students learn to navigate college more independently.

College for All
Jobs for the Future continues to document the success of early college designs nationally through its student information system, which houses records of more than 35,000 students at 213 schools in 177 districts. The system includes data on student demographics, enrollment and outcomes in high school and college courses, persistence and grade progression, state assessment results and post-early college enrollment in higher education.

Independent research, particularly in Texas and North Carolina, is backing the positive outcomes of early college programs. An experimentally designed study of early college schools in North Carolina, conducted by the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, suggests early college schools are closing the gaps in college-prep course taking and success between minority and nonminority students.

In Texas, SRI International is analyzing the effect of early college and STEM designs. It is looking at 9th- and 10th-grade outcomes, including attendance, state achievement test scores and on-track-to-graduate meas­ures. Among the initial results: Early college students are two times more likely to pass state exams in all four core subject areas than peers in comparison schools, and more than twice as likely to pass geometry or Algebra II, the next courses in the college preparatory math sequence.

Based on these promising findings, more Texas and North Carolina districts have become interested in adopting early college designs. And these states are not alone. New York, Massachusetts and Kentucky have early college initiatives in the planning stages. In New York, the Smart Scholars initiative, led by the State University of New York, opened 11 early colleges in fall 2010. The plans build on the success of City University of New York programs in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education and the seven early college high schools with which CUNY partners.

The Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District and the state of North Carolina provide examples of what early college designs can do to accelerate students’ preparation for college and careers. As they show, the best way to prepare young people to succeed in college is to provide them with substantial college experiences while still in high school.

At a time when a college degree or credential, not just a high school diploma, should be the goal for all students, early college designs are a wise educational investment.

Joel Vargas is vice president of High School Through College programs at Jobs for the Future in Boston, Mass. E-mail: jvargas@jff.org. Marc Miller is editorial director at Jobs for the Future. The authors acknowledge the assistance of colleagues Lili Allen, Cecilia Le and Michael Webb.

Additional Resources
All documents can be accessed at www.jff.org unless otherwise noted.

Early College High School Initiative

Hidalgo Early College District Toolkit (forthcoming, fall 2011)

North Carolina New Schools Project

Texas High School Project

“Accelerating College Readiness: Lessons from North Carolina’s Innovator Early Colleges” by Cecilia Le and Jill Frankfort

“A Policymaker’s Guide to Early College Designs: Expanding a Strategy for Achieving College Readiness for All” by Nancy Hoffman and Joel Vargas

“Back on Track to College: A Texas School District Leverages State Policy to Put Dropouts on the Path to Success” by Lili Allen and Rebecca E. Wolfe

“A Better 9th Grade: Early Results from an Experimental Study of the Early College High School Model” by Julie Edmunds, SERVE Center, Greensboro, N.C.

“College Success for All: How the Hidalgo Independent School District Is Adopting Early College as a Districtwide Strategy” by Thad Nodine

“The Common Instructional Framework,” created by Jobs for the Future’s Institute for Teaching Excellence and Student Success, in partnership with the University Park Campus School

“Unconventional Wisdom: A Profile of the Graduates of Early College High School” by Michael Webb and Lia Mayka