A first generation in higher education at Arlington early college

Arlington Collegiate High School at Tarrant County College Southeast Campus will welcome its second freshman class next fall.
Arlington Collegiate High School at Tarrant County College Southeast Campus will welcome its second freshman class next fall. Star-Telegram

The repartee among Tabitha Ray’s Arlington Collegiate High School students in a recent theater class was definitely imaginative.

Teens had “cast” Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez in their fantasy Romeo and Juliet remake (set in a ’60s-era high school) and replaced the chorus of narrators with Morgan Freeman. The warring families were transformed into cliques of hippies and jocks.

“The elements you are providing,” said Ray, “are very postmodern.”

Ray, an instructor at Tarrant County College Southeast Campus, was teaching the freshmen her usual college-level material as part of a dual-credit program at the school, which is completing its first year. Fort Worth is getting a third early college high school this fall, and Grand Prairie is opening two.

The Arlington school, in its own building on the TCC campus’ northeast corner, has 118 freshmen. Next fall, they will be sophomores, and a new freshman class will enter. During their junior year, the current group will transition to junior-senior classes in the TCC buildings.

“My main goal is to have a career and not just live for a paycheck every week,” said Emeli Yanez, 15, who explained her decision to attend the early college school instead of Sam Houston High School. “I knew my opportunities would be much greater here.”

Students, who must apply for acceptance into the program, give up a lot to attend the collegiate school as opposted to a traditional campus. There are no extracurricular programs like marching band or sports. The classroom hours are long and the homework even longer. The classes are all Advanced Placement or pre-AP level and dual-credit high school and college.

“A lot of them have never taken a pre-AP course before,” said Principal Ben Bholan, who was principal of Ferguson Junior High School at this time last year. “Ninety-four percent of our students here are the first ones in their families to earn college credit.”

A common misconception, Bholen said, is that the students are all high achievers with top grade-point averages. Rather, motivation and the willingness to work hard and long trump everything else at the school. Some students excel, others struggle, but Bholen says staff members are ready to help one on one.

‘A faster track’

Domingo Barrera, 15, was an all-sport standout at Barnett Junior High School and would likely have made a name for himself at Bowie High School. Instead, after talking it over with his mother, he chose to attend the new school, relegating his athletics to pickup basketball games at TCC’s gym.

“I miss sports, but not enough to alter my plan,” said Barrera. He wants to earn a degree in electrical engineering. “I’m seeing this more as a faster track than if I’d gone to Bowie.”

Yanez doesn’t have a specific career goal right now, but she realizes she has time for that. She will be accumulating college credit while deciding, and she enjoys the challenging pace and the work.

“The environment here is like nothing else,” Yanez said. “If we went back to regular high school now, we would have a lot of trouble adjusting.”

The school opened last fall with a surplus of applications. Requests to attend continue to increase, said Arlington Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos, and student retention and attendance rates remain high. Of 122 students on opening day, 118 are still with the program. Three withdrew because of family relocations, and only one went back to a traditional campus.

“There is more demand than there are opportunities there,” Cavazos said. “Students truly taking action to realize their dreams is really demonstrated at the early college high school. It’s one thing to dream and another thing to take tangible action to make it happen.”

Popular statewide

Early college high schools are flourishing statewide. The Texas Education Agency gave final approval in April for 44 new ones for the 2015-16 school year. Those designations bring Texas’ total for such campuses to 154.

The Fort Worth school district received a new ECHS designation for its Fort Worth ISD Collegiate High School opening this fall on the Tarrant County College South Campus. Fort Worth has two other early college high schools: Marine Creek Collegiate High School at TCC Northwest Campus and Texas Academy of Biomedical Sciences, 3813 Valentine St., in cooperation with TCC Trinity River Campus, the University of North Texas and the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

The Grand Prairie district will open two early college high schools next year.

The schools give students who might not get to attend college an opportunity to earn a high school diploma and significant college credit at the same time. Students can graduate with either a completed associate degree or at least 60 college credit hours toward a baccalaureate degree. There is no cost to students.

Gerardo Gonzales teaches algebra and geometry at the Arlington school, having moved from a much larger student population at Bowie High School.

“The main difference here is the flexibility of the staff,” he said. “There are more opportunities for interventions with the students, and you can monitor them a lot better.”

He works longer hours and the pace is more intense, but Gonzales isn’t complaining.

“The students know our expectations for them, and communication is key,” he said. “It’s life-changing for them as well as for me. Everywhere else, you like to think that education is important to them. Here, it’s the only thing.”

Students have settled in and adopted some elements of a campus life. They have picked their colors and organized a Student Council, campus newspaper, and robotics, manga and dance clubs. With TCC, they can play some intramural sports and participate in programs such as music and culinary clubs.

They learn to persevere through the ups and downs, even as freshmen.

“I’ve failed, but I’ve also succeeded,” Barrera said. “I don’t go to practice after class anymore, I go home to study. But I know what’s important in my life.”

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