When Lydia Martinez crossed the stage to receive her associate degree from Austin Community College, she felt as if she had broken through a number of barriers and expectations as the first person in her family to attend college.
And she did it even before she left high school.
Martinez, who moved to the United States from Mexico less than three years ago, was one of 13 Austin school district seniors who received their two-year degrees from ACC weeks before they graduate from high school.
They are the first students to complete the district’s Early College High School program, which gives students a chance to take college classes for free to fulfill their high school graduation requirements. Martinez, who will graduate from Reagan High School, will be nearly two years ahead when she enrolls at the University of Texas in the fall.
“This was big — this was huge,” Martinez said. “I beat so many marks, so many low expectations from people since I came to this school … what some people thought of me coming from Mexico. I know I will accomplish my goals, because that’s what I always work for.”
Placed in two of Austin’s lowest-performing schools, the Early College High School program targets first-generation college attendees. The Austin school district incorporated the program four years ago at LBJ and Reagan high schools to help turn around the campuses and to provide students who typically were not college-bound a way to get there.
Sixty seniors took at least some college courses during their four years of high school.
“We do believe the Early College High School program is a game-changer, not just for these schools but for the students who are taking part in the program,” said Edmund Oropez, interim chief of schools.
Though the first group to come through the early college program is small, the number of underclassmen enrolled is growing.
“It’s not a huge number, but when you think of where these schools were five years ago, it’s really impressive,” said Melissa Biegert, ACC’s Early College High School director.
Before the early college program, only 14 students at Reagan and 17 at LBJ took any dual-credit classes, Biegert said.
“It’s a steppingstone for them,” Biegert said. “They tend to use it as a launchpad to do more because now they know they can do it.”
Martinez’s parents didn’t attend college; her dad completed only middle school. But growing up, Martinez was determined to attend a university in the United States. When her family arrived in Austin, she was placed in remedial classes and was put an entire grade level behind. But within months, school officials realized the work was too easy for Martinez and put her in advanced classes before steering her toward early college. Martinez breezed through the college credits in two years — though they typically take four years for high school students. She is Reagan’s valedictorian and plans to become a neuroscientist.
“It just takes effort,” Martinez said. “There’s this saying I love: Nothing is impossible. The word itself says, ‘I’m possible.’ ”
The students also are hopeful the program will build a reputation at the schools, which have been known for low performance and bad test scores.
“Give it a few years. You’re going to have more enroll in Early College High School, and LBJ will become the place to go,” said Bryson Williams, another early college student, adding that some underclassmen enrolled because the inaugural graduates showed it was possible. “Most of them are doing it now because they see us doing it.”
Austin district officials anticipate the number of graduates who earn their two-year college degrees through the program will double next year and triple by 2017.
Austin will add the program to Travis High School in the fall, and other districts have followed suit. The Bastrop, Elgin and Manor districts started programs this year, and Del Valle and Hays soon will offer them.
Shania Williams, a high school wrestler who will graduate as LBJ’s valedictorian, said if it weren’t for the early college program, she would have transferred to some other school in the Austin district. Now she is thankful that the program will save her two years of college as she works toward getting into medical school. Her sister recently asked her to talk to one of her nephews, who was being picked on for being brainy.
“I told him being smart is not a bad thing,” she said. “They look up to me, and that’s all due to this program.”
Williams said she probably saved $20,000 for the cost of two years of tuition and board at the University of Texas.
The district spent $420,000 for both schools in 2013-14 to fund the program.
LBJ student Omari Henry, who also earned his associate degree, said students at LBJ accomplished more than what others thought they could because of the program.
“People said what we’re doing now wasn’t possible,” Henry said. “But sometimes when you don’t have the right motivation and encouragement, you don’t have a good foundation to stand on. We got that motivation and encouragement in this program.”
Why it matters
Historically, more than 90 percent of the 15,000 Central Texas high school graduates have said they will attend college immediately after high school, but only 62 percent actually do. Research shows low-income students are more likely not to enroll and points to causes such as the gap between financial aid and the actual cost of attendance, books and transportation.
Early college gains steam
Early college programs now exist at LBJ and Reagan high schools in the Austin school district. Travis High School will offer early college in the fall. The Bastrop, Elgin and Manor school districts started programs this year, and the Del Valle and Hays school districts soon will offer them.
Paths to college credit
Early College High Schools are designated by the Texas Education Agency and target students least likely to attend college. The classes are free, and students may earn up to 60 college credit hours. This year, Austin school district students from LBJ and Reagan high schools were the first to complete four years of the program and graduate with associate degrees. While some courses are taken on campus, many of them are offered at Austin Community College campuses.
Dual-credit courses also are offered regularly at other high schools, and students may earn 12 college credit hours through courses that offer advanced instruction beyond state standards, as well as through Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and advanced technical credit courses. School districts are not required to offer such courses. A new law will expand the availability of college credits to high school students across Texas by lifting the cap on the number of dual-credit courses students may take beginning in the fall of 2015.