Last Monday, Anabel Garza received news that a student was out sick. She wasn’t convinced. She called the boy’s mom and said, “I’m going to come check how sick he is.” She got in her car, drove to his house and brought him back to school.
“We set the standards so high that even if they don’t reach them, they get much further than if we hadn’t set those goals,” said Garza, the principal at Austin’s Reagan Early College High School.
Academics at Reagan are rigorous, and the expectations are high. About 90 percent of the students come from low-income families, and the majority are Hispanic, two factors that correspond with higher dropout rates in the state.
A growing number of schools like Reagan are trying to change those figures by allowing students to get their college education started early and for free.
“The first thing you have to do is build that self-esteem and self-confidence in those students,” Garza said. “Once you get that fire lit, you can’t control their flame.”
Graduation rates have surged 150 percent for Hispanic high school students since 2000, Harold Hahn, the chairman of the Higher Education Coordinating Board, said at a recent Texas Tribune symposium on demographics. But work remains to ensure those students make it into higher education.
The Texas Education Agency recently announced that 44 new early college high schools will open for the 2014-15 school year. It is one of the fastest-growing education reforms in Texas, said Laura Gaines, the program coordinator at the Texas Education Agency. The programs are run in public high schools and are funded through a combination of private and public dollars.
“What makes this program really successful is because it waives fees associated with taking college courses, which can be a pretty substantial roadblock for these students,” Gaines said.
Early college high schools offer substantial savings for students, who are facing ever-increasing tuition costs.
“The opportunity to earn one to three semesters of college credit free of charge by the time you graduate high school is impassable,” said John Fitzpatrick, the executive director of Educate Texas, a nonprofit organization funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Communities Foundation of Texas
Efforts to start early college high schools in Texas began in 2004, with a proposal from Educate Texas to open 15 schools.
“We had a ton of questions early on. We wondered if regular kids would be able to handle college work,” he said.
Not all of the early college high schools that started in Texas have survived, but the numbers in the state have exponentially increased since 2006, when there were only a handful. By 2010, the number increased to more than 40. By next year, there will be more than 100.
The first batch of early college high schools in Texas opened during the 2006-07 school year, created to target at-risk students who had repeated previous grade levels or failed state assessment tests, Gaines said.
But lawmakers in 2011 cut state funding for education by $5.4 billion. Last year, lawmakers restored some of those funds, allowing the Texas Education Agency, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and Texas Workforce Commission to invest $3 million in 2014 to build more technical, career-focused early college high schools.
A 2014 report by the American Institutes for Research indicates that students who attend early college high schools, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds, are more likely to attend college.
A report by Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit economic and educational organization, found that 71 percent of graduates from early college high schools enroll in college, compared with the national enrollment rate of 68 percent.
College enrollment rates in regular high schools drop to 34 percent among low-income students, according to a joint study by the Brookings Institution and Princeton University.
Aiming to keep college enrollment rates up among students in the early college program, the Greater Texas Foundation recently started a scholarship program that provides two to three years of financial assistance to needy students, said Wynn Rosser, president and CEO of the foundation. The organization offers about 100 scholarships each year at four public universities: Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Brownville, the University of North Texas and the University of Houston.
At Reagan High School this year, nearly all of the seniors applied to college, said Wilton Harris, an adviser at the school. The school invites guest speakers from the universities to talk to students and get them interested in college.
“When they can actually see what it’s like to be at a college or university, that makes a big difference,” Harris said.
Disclosure: Educate Texas, the University of Houston and the Greater Texas Foundation are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.)