Strong Partnerships Needed for Successful ECHS Programs

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

The success of El Paso’s Early College High School programs drew 140 educators from around the state to a June 15 conference at The University of Texas at El Paso to discuss best practices for enhancing student achievement.

The Early College High School (ECHS) plan allows students to earn an associate degree at the same time as their high school diplomas – sooner in some cases – at no cost to the student. The El Paso region has six of these programs where school districts partner with the El Paso Community College at an EPCC campus.More than a dozen UTEP students who are graduates of El Paso's six ECHS programs helped Donna Ekal, Ph.D., associate provost for undergraduate studies (back row, center) at a June 15 Early College High School conference at UTEP. Photo courtesy of Alma Garcia.More than a dozen UTEP students who are graduates of El Paso's six ECHS programs helped Donna Ekal, Ph.D., associate provost for undergraduate studies (back row, center) at a June 15 Early College High School conference at UTEP. Photo courtesy of Alma Garcia.

Attendees representing programs, foundations, school districts and universities participated in plenary sessions, panel presentations and breakout sessions during the one-day meeting in UTEP’s Union Building East. The event’s theme was "El Paso Region Early College High School Convening: Working Together for Student Success."

Among the keys to success is a strong line of support through partnerships such as the one between the area school districts, EPCC and UTEP, said Ivette Savina, principal of the Northwest Early College High School, which serves students in the Canutillo Independent School District. Before that, she was assistant principal at Mission ECHS, the first early college high school in El Paso. The school, which opened in 2006, is for students in the Socorro Independent School District.

“We were building the airplanes as we were flying them,” she said, laughing as she recalled the efforts to start the program that was created to help students from underrepresented backgrounds to become college ready. “Now they’re easier to navigate.”

Savina, who participated in two panel discussions, said she and other El Paso area ECHS officials shared the procedures that have worked for them as they produce more college-ready students, especially students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. She hoped the information would help outside educators create their own pathways for program and student success.

From all she gathered, the event was a success, said Donna Ekal, Ph.D., associate provost for undergraduate studies, who organized the conference. She said the participants were “interactive, energetic and positive.”

She said one of the day’s highlights was an afternoon panel where three El Paso ECHS graduates shared the impact the experience had on them. They currently are UTEP undergraduate and graduate students.

“They talked so eloquently about their challenges and successes,” she said.

Although not part of the ECHS conference, UTEP senior Daniel Castro praised the program for the bump he got as a student at the Transmountain Early College High School, which serves students in the El Paso Independent School District.

Castro, 18, earned his Associate of Arts degree from El Paso Community College (EPCC) a year before his high school diploma in 2012 and spent part of his senior year at The University of Texas at El Paso. Initially a computer science major, he transferred to biology with a biomedical concentration.

“This is a great program because it allows you to advance faster compared to regular high school,” he said during a telephone interview from West Point, Penn., where he is a summer intern in the vaccine manufacturing division of Merck, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturers. “I’m one of the younger interns. Most of them are 20 to 25. They tell me they wish they had (an ECHS) when they were in high school.”

Some participants were interested in how they could replicate the positive academic results in traditional high schools. That would call for professional development of teachers, who need advanced credentials to teach dual-credit courses, leadership training for principals, as well as additional training for advisers and counselors, said Alma Garcia, a national expert on ECHS and program officer with Educate Texas, a group that works to enhance the academic experience of Texas students.

Garcia gave participants a state and national overview of the growing impact of ECHS. She said there were ECHS programs in 28 states, including 75 programs in North Carolina and 59 in Texas. She said records show that students enrolled in ECHS programs have higher levels of attendance and retention.

She added that the impact of ECHS has a ripple effect throughout families and society. It saves the student time academically, saves the family money because there is no charge for the tuition, books, fees, etc., and creates a college culture among everyone it touches.

“Based on the data collected, El Paso is doing as well, if not better, than the rest of the state and the nation,” she said during a telephone interview while headed to another ECHS meeting in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. “Interest is accelerating.”