Next summer, when Cristina Vela goes to Michigan — the same long trip from the small South Texas border town of Hidalgo that she has made every year with her migrant family — it will not be to work in the fields. When an admissions officer from Michigan State University visited her high school earlier this month and saw Vela’s transcript, she was accepted on the spot.
Vela, who is the first in her family to go out of state to school, said she is not concerned about the academic challenges of college — she has been taking college courses since her sophomore year. By the time she graduates next spring, she will have accumulated 30 college credit hours. Some of her classmates have double that.
Vela’s achievement is part of an initiative involving dual-credit courses that allows students to merge high school with college level education to an unprecedented extent. Hidalgo’s school — once ranked among the worst performing in the state — is now one of the most successful. An exceptional level of collaboration between local leaders in public and higher education has permeated Hidalgo for the last five years and is taking hold elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley, which boasts some of the country’s poorest counties, providing students with new opportunities.
In the 1980s, when the state’s education accountability systems were first put into place, Hidalgo’s high school was ranked among the bottom 10 percent of the state’s schools in academic performance. The student population is 99 percent Hispanic, 89 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 70 percent are considered “at risk” by the standards of the Texas Education Agency.
Today, Hidalgo students graduate at higher rates than the state average, and 98 percent — compared with 81 percent statewide — complete a recommended or distinguished curriculum as defined by the state.
At most high schools in Texas, students are only permitted to enroll in dual-credit courses after they have entered their junior year. Even then, they can only enroll in up to two at a time. At early college high schools, such limits do not exist. The national Early College High School Initiative was launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2002. The idea was to finance small schools that, in partnership with local colleges, provide an early introduction to the concept and rigor of higher education to up to 400 low-income high school students, 100 per grade.
But Hidalgo has taken that notion even further.
Daniel P. King was the Hidalgo Independent School District superintendent in 2005 when the local early college effort began. He liked the idea but thought it could be improved. “Early college high schools were already outside the box,” he said. “We wanted to go outside their box.”
Many of the early college high schools were located on college campuses, which was limiting. Hidalgo’s public school serves more than 800 students, and Mr. King was not interested in reaching only half of his population. Instead, he proposed leveraging two grants to convert his entire school to the early college model. He created the first “early college district” in the country, according to Joel Vargas, a vice president at Jobs for the Future, the Boston-based organization that coordinates the nationwide initiative.
Hidalgo’s first partner was University of Texas-Pan American, a four-year university in Edinburg. Later, Hidalgo joined with South Texas College, a local community college, and Texas State Technical College.
UT-Pan American President Robert S. Nelsen said one of the side effects has been a need to increase the rigor of his school’s college courses to account for students’ increased preparedness. Similarly, middle schools have increased their standards to prepare students for early college high school. At Jaime Escalante Middle School in Pharr, Maria Valencia, a sixth grader, recently chose St. Edward’s University in Austin as her top college pick. Her next project: preparing to take the PSAT.
The middle school is in the 32,000-student Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District, where King now serves as superintendent. He is attempting to replicate the success of the Hidalgo model in a district 10 times the size. He is quick to leverage any sources he can to reach as many students as possible.
When the Texas Legislature passed a bill in 2007 granting funding for high school students up to age 26, King opened a new school for older high school dropouts in a matter of weeks. The College, Career & Technology Academy also collaborates with South Texas College as part of a deliberate district-wide strategy to steer students toward jobs that meet the region’s needs. Since opening, it has graduated more than 700 students who had previously given up on high school.
Shirley A. Reed, the president of South Texas College, believes the key to a successful partnership is leaders who are willing to get together and speak candidly. Luzelma Canales, the interim associated dean of community engagement and workforce development at South Texas College, believes that there is a simple reason why such collaborations have flourished in the Rio Grande Valley to an exceptional extent: it is a community with something to prove.
“No one else is going to get away with saying, ‘You can’t find educated people in our region,’” she said. “Other people have this perception that if you live along the border region, you must not be really smart. If we don’t dismiss those myths, nobody else is going to.”
Of course, it’s much easier to do when there is money available. “There is definitely a cost,” said Ed Blaha, superintendent of the Hidalgo Independent School District and former principal of Hidalgo Early College High School, who now finds himself with tough decisions regarding his district’s future.
Hidalgo has cycled through the grant that initially established the early college high school, and the state is facing a budget shortfall that could put education funding in a vice for every district.
King said he hopes legislators realize that whatever the cost of fully financing public education is, “it costs less than having a lot of dropouts.”
Blaha said Hidalgo will work through tough budgetary times as necessary. “We’ve come this far,” he said. “We can’t go back.”